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Hacking COVID—Sitting Down with Pranav Agrawal

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA, is hosting a series of hackathons for students across the globe. Their goal is to tackle the problems brought upon by the pandemic, with students ideating ways to solve various issues that have shown up. The 48-hour virtual event held in August was based on solving the problems faced by our country, with the tagline ‘India: Turning the Tide’. Pranav Agrawal, a final year student pursuing a Bachelor’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering in MIT, Manipal, and a member of one of the winning teams, shared his experiences of the challenge with The MIT Post.

Can you give us some insight into your product and how it works?

During the application process of the hackathon, we were asked for our work experience and preference on the given themes of the problem statements. According to that, we were selected and allotted one of the ten tracks, where we had to pitch in our ideas and form teams. People could join groups depending on their interests and a suitable problem statement was then decided upon in accordance with the given themes. Our problem statement involved sterilising touch-points in ICUs and COVID-19 isolation wards. To overcome this, we wanted to create a portable sterilising device that decontaminates contact points.

Cross-contamination is a common occurrence, especially in hospitals. We decided to narrow down our problem statement and focus on ICUs and Isolation Wards. We started listing down issues and common touchpoint areas that could be a reason for the spread of the virus within an isolation ward. We found that there were around 20-25 such common areas, including monitor controls, switchboards, bed rails, and masks. Our goal was to sterilise these places.

Our product is called Sterilo. It is made up of a virus-neutralising fabric with zinc oxide nanoparticles, and consists of UVC LEDs and snap buttons. It is quick to use, as it sterilises any instrument in a span of five seconds.

Sterilo is different from other existing products because it is a flexible cloth-like device which can be wrapped around any surface or object. It is quite versatile as it can be used for sterilising surgical instruments. It is portable, and can also be reused multiple times. All we need to do is adhere the snap buttons to their positions, snap the Sterilo securely onto them, and wait for five seconds. Our product can also be used by wrapping it around the device or surface for five seconds. In this manner, an entire ward can be decontaminated within merely four minutes.

An example of its use is on doorknobs, which is a majorly unrecognised touchpoint area. To open a door, you need to touch the doorknob, and so far no device can sanitise it. The current solutions in the market, the use of UVC lamps, have certain drawbacks. To fumigate the wards and staff areas or to use a UVC box requires people to vacate the area as the radiation is harmful to the human skin and eyes. As per regulation, the room must necessarily be ventilated for at least 24 hours before it can be occupied again. In times like this, with the COVID-19 pandemic in full swing, the patient cannot leave the ward during sanitisation.

Additionally, the UVC sterilisation box cannot sterilise fixed objects such as door handles and controls of medical devices. With the rapid rise in the number of patients due to the pandemic, contamination among medical professionals has increased. To solve such an issue, we came up with this product that does not require any sort of evacuation and is easy to use.

How did each of your teammates contribute to it?

In the competition, there were around 3,000 participants, and we were given six hours to form a team of a maximum of seven people to pitch in ideas. My group consisted of seven members: two product designers, two doctors, a computer engineer, a civil engineer, and myself as a mechanical engineer.

We were given two days to design the product. We used a real-time collaboration tool called Miro Board to pitch in ideas and come up with a problem statement and its solutions. We came up with multiple designs to sterilise objects like doorknobs. We came up with a device which can be fixed in place to radiate UVC rays. But we soon found loopholes in that idea and decided to incorporate the UVC LEDs in a cloth. Each of us had our own role in this competition. We also had to make a presentation for it. In the course of these 48 hours, we worked for around 28-30 hours with hardly any sleep, but it was worth it.

What obstacles did you face while you were working on it? How did you manage to overcome them?

The first issue was that none of us were together. We were all connected virtually, so it was a difficult task to handle. Such situations also bring about communication gaps, but the tool, Miro Board helped us a lot.

The other issue was that one of our teammates was from Uganda, while the rest of us were from India. The difference due to time zones was a problem and he had to adjust according to us. Regardless of this time difference, he did a pretty good job. He had to go to a cybercafe and work with us for the entire duration as he did not have internet access either.

We worked continuously for 30 hours as we kept brainstorming and coming up with loopholes in each others ideas. I contributed to the team by creating and pitching the presentation since no one else was comfortable speaking. I had to write a script, narrating little anecdotes about our experience in order to pitch our product in an interesting manner, as well as answer questions from the panellists.

What was your greatest takeaway from this experience?

I would say it was time management. We had to analyse the problem statement, design the product, and create the presentation within a span of 48 hours. We had to make a team and get along with them, while also attending a lot of lectures. Usually, team members find it challenging to develop a rapport with each other, but thankfully my team had the same concept and was genuinely supportive. We all bonded well and had one common goal—to help humankind. We were not there to win and did not expect to either. We only wanted our product to be recognised and help fight the pandemic. Since we were all from diverse backgrounds, we loved interacting and knowing more about others and their work. We were content that we used those 48 hours to the maximum and learned a lot.

The product is open-source so that anyone can make it at home. We did not want to monetise our device. We wanted to help people, regardless of winning or losing, so that we can give our product to the doctors and the Government of India. That was our actual plan, and that is how we are going forward, even now.

What was it like when you received the email saying that your team was one among the winners?

The winners were announced on the second day. We had pitched the product at 7 PM, and the winners were declared two hours later. Around 40, out of some 200-250 teams, won. Each problem statement had four winners. When the first three winners of our problem statement were declared, we felt dejected that we were not among them. When we were announced next, we felt elated. To celebrate this, we played Skribbl for around an hour.

Recently, we received an email, where we were told that we would receive $500 for the implementation of our product. The email took 20-25 days to reach us. During this time, we had started to lose hope, as we hadn’t received any follow-up from them yet. It made us a little sad, but when we received the email, it was quite a relief.

How was your overall experience undertaking this endeavour?

Honestly, I do not have words for that. It was my first hackathon, and I really did not expect that we would win. We were determined to make something useful and implement it. Winning or losing was not what we thought of. All of us decided to do the best we could in those 48 hours, and that is what we did—the experience was amazing.

The hackathon happens every month, aiming to tackle a different issue. I suggest everyone to participate in this as it helps you network, by connecting you with so many people, all around the globe. There is a session where you have to connect with people on LinkedIn to learn more about them, so it is a great networking opportunity. Of course, you get to think outside the box as well. So yes, the experience was amazing.

Image Credits: Team Ulinzi