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Beyond the Infinite

Beyond the Infinite, Fall 2013
Volume 8



Two women learn to dispense medication from Innovators in Health's smart pillbox at a workshop in Bihar, India. (Photo courtesy of Innovators in Health)

MIT certainly doesn't develop innovative technology for it to stay in a lab. When communities need a positive disruption to a seemingly intractable status quo, MIT can deliver solutions with a far-reaching impact. Around the turn of the millennium the PKG Center began facilitating international experiences, and as a result, MIT students began delivering their technological solutions to communities in need around the world.

Kanchan Arsenic Filter

The Kanchan Arsenic Filter (KAF) was developed at MIT in 2002 by graduate student Tommy Ngai under the direction of Susan Murcott '90, SM '92, senior lecturer in civil and environmental engineering. The KAF is a low-cost household water filter for the developing world that removes arsenic and other harmful particles from treated water.

In Nepal, 20,000 KAFs have provided clean water for about 100,000 people. Ngai is working with the Institute of Technology of Cambodia to modify the filter for distribution in Cambodia, and he is also working with the University of Illinois to test the filter's ability for virus removal.

As a graduate student at MIT beginning this work in Murcott's lab, Ngai entered the KAF design into the IDEAS Global Challenge and won a $5,000 award. That was just the beginning, as he would go on to secure funding from a variety of organizations and agencies, including the World Bank and the United Nations Human Settlements Programme. Now, Ngai works at the Centre for Affordable Water and Sanitation Technology (CAWST), a nonprofit that works with communities in developing nations who lack access to clean water and sanitation.

"My career in international development started with the Kanchan filter. I am now firmly in the international development and water and sanitation field, holding the position of director of research learning at CAWST, a leading water and sanitation NGO," says Ngai. "Without the PKG Center, I may have never been able to pursue my interest and start a career in international development."

Innovators in Health

Innovators in Health (IIH) is a nonprofit founded by Manish Bhardwaj SM '01, PhD '09 and Bill Thies '01, MEng '02, PhD '09 that ensures access to high quality tuberculosis (TB) treatment for patients in rural India. IIH grew out of the founders' original idea for uBox, a low-cost pillbox that reminds patients when to take medication while tracking the times of dosages for health care providers.

IIH now provides a suite of information technology solutions which enable the delivery of medication, the electronic storage of patient records, and the ability for field personnel to respond directly to automatically generated alerts for missed doses, side effects, and other potential health problems.

In rural Bihar, India, IIH's TB program covers a population of about 200,000 people, and since its inception, it has increased access to treatment fourfold. In the last three years, IIH has facilitated diagnoses for more than 1,400 patients and has started about 400 patients on treatment.

While Bhardwaj and Thies were at MIT, they entered the IDEAS Global Challenge with their uBox concept. Through IDEAS and several grants, the PKG Center provided enabling funding to help the duo further hone their concept.

In reflecting on his journey from a student at MIT to a CEO of his own nonprofit, Bhardwaj understands the value of public service but is still awed at the impact it can achieve.

"Public service transforms the doer as much as it transforms the beneficiary," says Bhardwaj. "The work we've done, and been very luck to be able to continue, has been deeply rewarding. The more we're able to help people, the more grateful we are, and the more humbled we are about the improbability of it all."


WiCare (Worldwide Innovative Healthcare) develops innovative medical devices that are clinically effective and affordable worldwide. Founded by Danielle Zurovcik SM '07, PhD '12, WiCare develops innovative medical devices that are clinically effective and accessible to a broad population.

Its first device in the Wound-Pump, a low-cost mechanism that uses negative pressure wound therapy (NPWT) through a special pump and vacuum dressing. NPWT is a proven treatment for accelerating the healing time of open, chronic wounds. Zurovcik has seen the impact of affordable access to NPWT during clinical applications in Haiti and Rwanda.

"The treatment of chronic wounds is an enormous burden to society, as the wound takes months or years to heal and often results in amputations," says Zurovcik. "Patients with amputations have a high risk of mortality. After receiving a lower-extremity amputation in the U.S., patients with diabetes have a median life expectancy of 27.2 months, and patients without diabetes have a median life expectancy of 46.7 months. Through our work in Haiti and Rwanda, we have positively impacted all of the factors above."

Zurovcik, like many of MIT's student-innovators, entered the PKG Center's IDEAS Global Challenge. Though the funding she won was important, she found the collaborative nature of the competition cycle to be incredibly beneficial as well.

"Through the IDEAS events, I realized the real impact that my work could potentially have," she says. "It really drove me to continue to pursue it over the years and provided a community of support, knowledge, and motivation on global topics that I learned to truly understand – topics that are not a part of the typical university curriculum. This really prepared me during our fieldwork in Haiti and Rwanda and created a solid foundation for me to stand on during this work."

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