In April 2018, Bill Gates freaked everyone out by reminding us we aren’t ready for a pandemic. Referencing research from the Institute for Disease Modeling, the Microsoft co-founder said that over 33 million people could die in a matter of months from a particularly virulent flu strain.
The Institute for Disease Modeling is part of Global Good, a collaboration between Gates and Intellectual Ventures, which, according to the company, “creates, incubates, and commercializes inventions.” Global Good was formed to take on issues facing the developing world, and some of the main focuses of the program include diseases such as malaria, pneumonia, and polio.
“The big model is to really go after some of these game-changing problems that in many cases, frankly, Silicon Valley and lots of other places aren’t necessarily going after or are not going after enough,” Eloise Quintanilla, Global Good’s communication manager, told Digital Trends.
To learn more about the work Global Good is doing, we paid a visit to its facility at Intellectual Ventures. What we discovered is a team that’s using technology to help tackle the epidemics affecting parts of the world where medicine is hard to come by, free of charge — and in turn, selling that same technology to those who can afford it.
A fun lab for fighting diseases
The building housing Global Good is 87,000 square feet. Walking inside the massive space, you wonder if it’s researching diseases or a big playroom for geeks. There is a cannon that fires ping pong balls at Mach 2, a Babbage engine, a Tesla coil chandelier, a Modernist Cuisine kitchen, and a 3D-printed apatosaurus tail. The conference rooms have names like Gutenberg, and the flavors in the slushie machine are dinosaur-themed. The “in case of emergency, break glass” box contains a s’more kit.
Oh, there’s also a nuclear reactor on site. Really.
“We’re kinda nerdy and proud of it,” said Quintanilla.
The 60-or-so researchers work with 3D printers, a water jet capable of slicing through steel, and an insectary full of mosquitoes. They shouldn’t get too attached to the insects, though, because many are destined for the photonic fence; a combination of cameras and software identifies the type and sex of the insect (only females bite and thus pose a danger of passing on disease), then lasers zap the potentially deadly ones. The company’s engineers built the prototype with parts off eBay.
“We come in not just when there’s a problem that needs a tech solution but also when there is a viable business model.”
Global Good considered using the fence to fight malaria or zika, but it was too expensive for the regions where it’s most needed. Instead, they developed trials for regions of Florida affected by citrus greening disease, which is carried by the Asian citrus psyllid. Should the technology’s price drop, it could have a mosquito-fighting future.
That’s how Global Good works. “We come in not just when there’s a problem that needs a tech solution but also when there is a viable business model,” Quintanilla said.
Profiting off altruism
Gates and Intellectual Ventures founder Nathan Myhrvold are throwing a lot of money at seemingly insurmountable problems through Global Good, but it’s not a non-profit. The program licenses its prototypes to manufacturers without royalties for use in developing countries, but charges them if they want to sell similar devices in the U.S. or European markets. These manufacturers don’t have to go through the rigor of research and design, and Global Good stays lean and mean, without the headaches of actually producing the devices. (Intellectual Ventures has been called a “patent troll” company that profits off patents it acquires or develops.)
Global Good is eight years old and has seen some successes. One example is Arktek, a vaccine cooler that uses thermal insulation technology to store 300 vials — enough for a village of 6,000 — without electricity for over a month. When the World Health Organization came to Global Good in 2014 during an ebola outbreak, asking for a cooler capable of maintaining a temperature of -80 degrees Celsius, the scientists modified the existing Arktek to fit the needs of the experimental vaccine.
To decide where to focus its attention, Global Good looks at which diseases kill the most children under the age of five, which includes pneumonia. Inspired by scuba technology, the Global Good team built a system that allows hospitals in areas with spotty electricity to create and store their own supply of therapeutic oxygen. They also created a mask specifically for children that delivers the oxygen more efficiently so less is wasted, and they’re partnering with a sleep apnea mask manufacturer to get them into the field.
There are a few ways to diagnose malaria. Microscopy is the “gold standard” but also very difficult. “It’s like finding a marble on a football field,” said Ben Wilson, head of the company’s center for intelligent devices. “It takes patience.” It’s also time-consuming, taking a microscopist 20 minutes per slide to determine whether or not there are parasites in the blood sample.
Wilson’s team developed a microscope that scores the same as a level 1 expert in several of the diagnostic categories. By training the algorithm with images of parasites and other substances found in blood, the microscope can identify samples with malaria, as well as indicators for bacterial or viral infections, chagas disease, African trypanosomiasis, microfilaria, and sickle cell. In 15 to 20 minutes, it should be able to see anything a trained lab tech would notice in a blood sample.
Motic, the company that’s partnered with Global Goods to manufacture the microscopes, will bring them to areas with drug-resistant malaria first. In these areas, a yes-or-no rapid-detection test isn’t helpful, as Clinics need to count parasites to see if antimalarials are working.
For Wilson, the technology isn’t about replacing people. In some cases, there aren’t well-trained technicians to replace, and in other cases, workers at under-staffed clinics could spend those 20 minutes of rigorous parasite searching doing other tasks. It’s a way to “democratize expertise,” he said, “taking something that would normally cost you money and make it almost free to people.”
Another idea that’s still in discussion phase is a primary care app for developing countries. Wilson cites the WHO’s diagnostic classification documents as a more static example. “It’s kind of like it is kind of a choose your adventure story,” he said. “If you have a fever, flip to page 58.”
But the app could be tailored to specific regions and times of year. “There is this general idea that you could take that book and make it prescriptive and make it adaptive to a situation both regionally and time-dependent,” Wilson said. Health workers would be able to quickly see if a certain diagnosis was more likely because it was the rainy season, for example, or whether to check for measles because there had been a outbreak in a nearby town.
While that’s happening on the ground, the Institute for Disease Modeling might be running scenarios for how best to treat that outbreak, based on how the area’s workers migrate or what treatments are available. Global Good is trying to address problems on both scale, while also enticing talent to work on them. “You need to realign incentives so that inventors are profiting from their inventions and are incentivized to go after some of those big problems,” Quintanilla said.
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