Mon | May 25, 2020

Taking COVID-19 heads on - Student entrepreneurs’ inventions prove viable weapons against deadly virus

Published:Sunday | April 12, 2020 | 12:00 AM
Wallen-Bryan
Pope Francis attends a Mass for Holy Thursday inside St Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican, Thursday, April 9, 2020. Francis celebrated the Holy Week Mass in St Peter’s Basilica, which was largely empty of faithful because of restrictions aimed at containing the spread of COVID-19. The new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people, but for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death.
Stewart
A medical staffer, her first name Giulia, and a smiling sun with the sentence everything will be fine painted on her protective outfit, works in the ICU unit of Rome's San Filippo Neri Hospital's COVIF department, Thursday, April 9, 2020. The new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people, but for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)
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As the global battle against the deadly COVID-19 disease wages on, with each country’s government, healthcare industry, and general public playing its part in defeating this new and relatively unknown enemy, two seemingly unlikely foot soldiers from Kingston, Jamaica, have advanced to the front lines with ingenious products and an invention aimed at safeguarding the public.

National Business Model Competition (NBMC) alumni and student entrepreneurs Yekini Wallen-Bryan and Rayvon Stewart, who attend the University of the West Indies and the University of Technology, respectively, have both risen to the occasion and presented robust solutions that have been hailed both locally and internationally as game-changing weapons in the fight against the novel coronavirus.

Stewart has presented his invention, Xermosol – a simple-to-install device that uses an ultraviolet light to automatically disinfect doorknobs and other surfaces where bacteria and viruses can easily be transmitted from one person to another. Wallen-Bryan, alongside team members Kriston Kong and Shane Smith, has spearheaded the production of locally made 3D face shields and the repairing of emergency ventilators that will supplement the shortage of personal protective equipment and available assisted-breathing machines in local hospitals.

Springing into action

“[My team and I] heard that there were very few emergency ventilators in Jamaica, and we [got an idea] of what it might be like in a few weeks or months if Jamaica is not adequately prepared,” said 25-year-old Wallen-Bryan. “I felt helpless at first. I felt like I saw what was coming and there was nothing I could do. But then I said, ‘No, wait! I could definitely do this’.” Since springing to action and tediously fine-tuning numerous designs, his team managed to successfully develop prototypes for both products in just under two weeks.

To date, the Ministry of Health and Wellness has already accepted its first 200 units of the 3D face shields with more orders to be filled soon via the recently organised Citizens Response JA coalition. “People have been calling from all over, too – the UK, Florida, Canada, all over the world. We’re also in talks with Trinidad to collaborate and deploy a solution that the region can use.”

Stewart’s product, however, was created about 10 months prior while preparing to compete in last year’s NBMC. The product was as a response to the 2015 Klebsiella outbreak in Jamaica that infected 40 babies in local hospitals, killing half of them.

“When the coronavirus was first reported in the news, the team recognised that the product could actually be used here [in our own fight]. It was the local doctors who we were already in dialogue with while working to develop a patent and organise production who thought Xermosol could kill COVID-19, having already validated the product proven to kill E. coli, H1N1, and MRSA,” he said.

Most notably, too, the Commonwealth Secretary General, Baroness Patricia Scotland, reached out to the team as she had also named Xermosol as a possible key weapon in containing the virus’ spread in a letter sent to its 54 member countries last week. Before this, the invention had already been also validated for use in airports, schools, morgues, and, most recently, in Australia, for use on buses. The 25-year-old computer science major added: “JAMPRO has also invited us to a meeting for more discussions. We are producing locally at this time, and we’re also in touch with three manufacturers – two in the US and one in the UK.”

Indisputable intellect

Though the indisputable intellect of both Stewart and Wallen-Bryan is now being widely recognised, with their solutions being highly sought after, the two were quick to point out that they weren’t always the model students that they now are. Wallen-Bryan, who attended St Andrew Preparatory and is currently pursuing his master’s degree in electronics engineering, admitted to not buckling down until the sixth form of Wolmer’s High School for Boys. Stewart, who attended New Gardens All-Age and Oberlin High schools, admitted:“Throughout primary school and high school, I wasn’t that good at math, and I got some shady comments from teachers. For example, one math teacher said to me that I was not going to become anything in life because some of the other students could readily understand what she put on the board, but I had to be asking 10 or 12 questions to get it.”

Mentorship has been a turning point, too, they claimed. Wallen-Bryan said: “I don’t think any one person has it all figured out. With mentorship, at least one of us has gone through it, and you can learn from other persons’ experiences and insight.” This guidance came primarily from their participation and continued affiliation with the NBMC, organised by the Development Bank of Jamaica (DBJ) and the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica, as it aims to promote a successful entrepreneurial ecosystem by providing coaching while connecting entrepreneurs at the student level with investors.

Wallen-Bryan and Stewart placed third and fourth, respectively, in the 2019 competition, and went on to compete at the International Business Model Competition, held last May in Utah, United States. The local competition’s seventh staging this year was postponed, however, as a result of the global pandemic. Audrey Richards, project coordinator at the DBJ’s Jamaica Venture Capital Programme, said: “I am delighted to see these two entrepreneurs working so assiduously to assist in the fight against this pandemic. The teams that enter the NBMC annually are individuals who balance work and study. So, once again, it highlights the boldness, strength, and power of Jamaicans both local and internationally.”

Youth entrepreneurship

The two hope to see more students following in their path by opting to pursue entrepreneurship rather than seeking a traditional job, and, in turn, stepping up to provide solutions for society that will help grow the country’s economy. Stewart, giving words of encouragement, said: “I think this is the best thing for Jamaica as more entrepreneurs means more economic growth and development. So my message to students who are thinking about this is just to persevere. Things are going to get tough. But if you work hard enough and have the right people on your team, you will reach the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Likewise, Wallen-Bryan opined: “If we want Jamaica to grow, we have to have self-reliance. We have to be creating jobs, and people have to figure out how to solve problems here instead of going overseas to buy or outsource solutions that can be produced locally with our own skill sets. In times like this, where we have the COVID-19 crisis, we’re seeing how it warrants self-­reliance. I would encourage everybody to stop thinking about just getting a regular nine-to-five and start thinking, ‘how can I do something differently to add value to my community or country?’”