Fighting Dengue Fever With Legos

By Cristina Quinn   |   Monday, January 23, 2012
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Jan. 24, 2012


Take a fruit picker and combine it with a Coke bottle and you have... a gripper for a prosthetic arm. (Cristina Quinn/WGBH)

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Sometimes, to talk about the future, we need to visit the past. Remember "MacGyver," the popular TV show of the '80s? To escape deadly situations, the secret agent combined his expertise in physics and chemistry with ordinary household objects.

Today, at MIT, they’re not using MacGyver’s paper clips and duct tape to get out of risky jams. But they are turning to Legos and bike pumps to help solve problems in the developing world such as dengue fever and asthma.

The lab of the Little Devices Group on the MIT Campus resembles the garage of a hacker. At first glance, it seems pretty ordinary: tools, pipefittings, test tubes and wood spread out across the room. Upon further inspection, you see Popsicle sticks, dissected toy helicopters and boxes of Legos.  But make no mistake: the work done here is far from child’s play.

Jose Gomez-Marquez is a medical device designer at Little Devices. In a tour through the space, he points out the sections of the lab.

“Generally our lab is divided between dry and wet, mechanical and electrical with a little bit of everything in between sometime. In the mechanical side of the lab, what we have here are a lot of toys. We use a lot of toys because those are durable parts.” Gomez says.

A man, a plan, a bike pump nebulizer, Nicaragua

And where do they find those toys? Rummaging through the aisles of toy stores and dollar stores is a big part of what the Little Devices Group does, which is making MEDIKits. These kits come with devices and are designed to save lives by doing what we take for granted: check vital signs, administer drugs and perform diagnostics. For a nurse in Nicaragua, these kits can improve the quality of care she gives—and save someone a long trip to a hospital just for a quick asthma treatment.

Gomez-Marquez plugs in a compressor attached to a nebulizer. “The nebulizer works by having a compressor you connect to a wall, and all it does is blow air. So we started playing with these instead," he explains.

He then takes out a bicycle pump the team bought for $5 in a hardware store in Nicaragua. When you think about it, it does the same job as a nebulizer—blowing air—but it's powered by a human, not electricity.

The team tore out the part that connects to the bike tire valve. Add a zip tie to the tubing… and the end result is a bike pump nebulizer that is being used in remote areas of Nicaragua, where electricity can be scarce.

The kit in the field

It seems easy in an MIT lab, but what happens when a kit of tubes and doodads arrive in a poor village?

“We basically try to give them the parts in a way that’s smart— that have a language of design [so] they know how to put them together," Gomez-Marquez says. "By language of design, we mean, you never have to teach a kid how to use Legos. They just have an intrinsic snap-on quality about them. And if they want to make a car, there is just some underlying logic that allows them to make a car. We think the same should be true with a medical device.”

The Little Devices Group wants to democratize the way people fabricate medical devices and break down any class barriers between the medical communities of the developing and developed worlds. Sending simple tools allows users to develop their own prototypes to create solutions for the problems they see on a daily basis.

“It’s much more different to come up with a device here than to come up with a device out there,” Gomez-Marquez explains.

A step backward?

Some critics of the MEDIKit say the emphasis on empowering those in the developing world should be on training, not making simple devices out of toys and plumbing hardware.

“They don’t so much need instruments and tools and devices as someone who knows how to fix them and keep them working,” says Irving Bigio, a professor of biomedical engineering and mechanical engineering at Boston University.

While Bigio’s research also focuses on creating devices for poor countries, he says training and troubleshooting are the key.

For a nebulizer, he thinks the best approach is to teach people "how to simply repair it and keep it working. If nothing else, they’ll be ready to make use of the piles and crate loads of equipment that various donor organizations dump on them and they don’t know how to use."

In the meantime, the team at the Little Devices Group continues to go toy shopping. But they’re also developing more MacGyver-type fixes to problems—like a surgical tool sterilization kit using pocket-sized mirrors and a pressure cooker, or handing out free cellphone minutes as an incentive to take your medicine.

“A lot of people are going blue in the face trying to yell at us because we’re being cowboy inventors," Gomez-Marquez says. "But I think for every good idea, you’re going to get a handful of people that do that, and that means that you’re doing a good job."

Xconomy Report For Nov. 25, 2011

By   |   Wednesday, November 23, 2011
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Nov. 25, 2011

xconomy logo

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. —  If you’re looking for a way to work off that turkey dinner, you might try RunKeeper. The Boston startup, which helps people track their health and fitness on mobile devices, has raised $10 million from Spark Capital, O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures and Revolution Ventures — the last led by AOL co-founder Steve Case. RunKeeper is an example of something that’s on the rise in Boston: software companies that focus on consumers.

Check in with the WGBH News show Innovation Hub on Dec. 3–4 for a conversation with RunKeeper founder/CEO Jason Jacobs.
In other deals news, Littleton-based TeraDiode, which makes high-power lasers for defense and industrial customers, received a $10 million investment; Billerica’s Harvest Automation, a developer of plant-harvesting robots, pulled in $7.8 million. 
Our quote of the week captures the current sentiment among biotech investors. Jens Eckstein, head of GlaxoSmithKline’s venture capital arm, said: "It's not only a few venture firms getting out of life sciences, it's a herd!”
Meanwhile, the quest to build world-changing companies continues. On December 1 in downtown Boston, scientist and entrepreneur Stephen Wolfram keynotes a special forum called “6 by 6: Six Cities, Six Big Tech Ideas.” You can find out more at

The weekly roundup of business, technology and life science news from our partners at airs every Friday on WGBH 89.7 Boston Public Radio.

Xconomy Report For Oct. 21, 2011

Friday, October 21, 2011
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Oct. 21, 2011

BOSTON — A Boston-area tech company is involved in one of the most ambitious federal projects of our time. Security Innovation, based in Wilmington, makes the software behind what could be the nation’s first wireless collision avoidance system for cars. A pilot study of 3,000 cars is rolling out next year. Eventually, all cars made in the U.S. could be required to have the technology. 
In other innovation news:
Boston-based Third Rock Ventures put $35 million behind a new company, Sage Therapeutics, that aims to develop a novel class of drugs for schizophrenia, depression, and other brain disorders.
Cambridge-based Vertex Pharmaceuticals is seeking FDA approval for a drug that would offer a new way of treating cystic fibrosis.
Finally, two deals this week continue a recent trend of Boston-area tech companies being bought out by West Coast giants. Endeca Technologies, an enterprise search company in Cambridge, is being acquired by Oracle for an undisclosed sum. Boxborough-based BNI Video, a startup that makes Internet software for cable companies, is being snapped up by Cisco for $99 million.

The weekly roundup of business, technology and life science news from our partners at airs every Friday on WGBH 89.7 Boston Public Radio.

Mass. Companies Get $27 M To Develop Clean Cars

By Sarah Birnbaum   |   Thursday, August 11, 2011
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Aug. 11, 2011

A Nissan Leaf charges in Portland, Ore. The government recently awarded millions of dollars in grants to develop technology for electric and other "green" cars. (AP)

BOSTON — Massachusetts companies will receive about $27 million dollars from the federal government to help improve fuel efficiency technologies for next generation cars.

The U.S. Department of energy says it’s awarding more than $175 million to  spur clean-auto technology and the production of advanced car batteries. The funding will go to 40 projects in 15 states, including eight projects in Massachusetts.
Natick company Metal Oxygen Separation Technologies won a $6 million grant. CEO Steve Derezinski says the money will go to developing a cheaper and greener way to manufacture magnesium metal.
“The Department of energy has a goal of 55 miles per gallon now. And the best way to do that is just make the vehicles lighter. And magnesium is the lowest density engineering metal out there to make the cars lighter and more fuel efficient,” Derezinski said.
Industry analysts say finding cheaper ways of producing magnesium will make it a more viable choice for automakers,
who must meet the new fuel economy standards by 2025.
Other Massachusetts companies to receive grants include A123systems, a lithium ion battery maker in watertown, and GMZ Energy in Waltham, which is working on a device that captures heat from a car's exhaust and converts it into energy.

Engineering Ground Zero

Wednesday, August 10, 2011
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Japan's Killer Quake

Thursday, March 24, 2011
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About the Authors
Sarah Birnbaum
Sarah Birnbaum is WGBH News' State House reporter. Send her a news tip.


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