The Innovators: Ebola’s Innovation Legacy

by Kristen Sissener, @kristensissener of @PairedAir.

Sometimes the world is lucky enough to stumbleupon paradigm-shifting innovations by accident. Penicillin was originally discovered when a scientist forgot about a bacteria colony growing in a petri dish and left for vacation, only to return home and discover a particular mold growing…and no bacteria. Our modern concept of anesthesia came about at a “laughing party” in the late 1800s, when a party goer sustained a severe – yet pain free – injury to his leg while under the influence of recreational nitrous oxide.

Yet at other times, necessity is the mother of invention. And perhaps never before in the history of modern global health have we seen more of a necessity for innovative solutions than during the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa . This outbreak elevated the status of this previously “neglected” tropical disease to the world stage, illustrating the devastating effects that weakened health systems can have not just on a local community, but on entire nations, continents and the world itself.

Tech4Dev3Bleak though things may appear, there’s always a silver lining: as the international community raced to respond to the massive challenges of controlling this outbreak, necessity indeed mothered invention. Some, like the rapid development of a crucial Ebola vaccine, though essential and valuable for combating this and future outbreaks, are specific only to this disease. Others however have far-reaching impact for all areas of global and public health.

Below we’ve identified four key innovations born from the urgency and need of the Ebola outbreak. While the devastating consequences of this disease will be felt in West Africa and in the global health community for some time to come, hopefully the lasting legacy of these innovations will lend some small sliver of silver lining to an otherwise bleak chapter in global health.

Ebola1Bill and Melinda Gates In PPE at an Ebola treatment center. Photo courtesy of

Improved PPE Design from Johns Hopkins University

A star of many nightly news segments in the wake of the outbreak, this previously unsung hero rose to fame for it’s role in preventing contamination…and often for its role in contributing to contamination. And fatigue, and heat exhaustion and the list goes on.

A joint project between non-profit global health organization Jhpiego and John’s Hopkins’s Center for Biomedical Innovation and Design resulted in the redesign of the lowly PPE, resulting in a safer, more effective, and more comfortable product.

Ebola2Key elements of the improved suite include a wider, less foggy face shield integrated into the suit itself, a batter-powered cooling fan in the suit lining, moisture-wicking materials commonly found in athletic attire, and an overall design eliminating the need for a second person to help during the donning and doffing process.

The improved suit will not only help the hundreds of healthcare workers currently working tirelessly in West Africa, but will also help in future outbreaks of this and other highly infectious diseases.

Rapid Diagnostic Technology

Using the current technology to diagnose Ebola, a disease that often presents as a simple flu but can be lethal within a matter of days, you would have to wait on average 12-24 hours for a result. Not including transit time to and from a lab. Also required at that lab: electricity. Not particularly helpful if you’re treating patients in a rural clinic in West Africa, or elsewhere.

A number of companies and innovators are working to change that. Last month the World Health Organization announced the approval of Colorado-based Corgenix Medical Corp’s ReEBOV Antigen Rapid Test Kit for use in WHO clinics. Using innovative DNA amplification technology, the test yields a result in 15 minutes with a 92% accuracy rate, and with no electricity required.

With a number of other products in development from Corgenix and others, including tests for the viruses causing Dengue Fever, Chikungunya and of course HIV, these mobile, low-resource diagnostics could be potentially game changing for remote clinics and community health workers everywhere.

Ebola-Proof” Tablet

A combined effort on the part of volunteers from Whitespell and Hack4Good, as well as sponsorship from Google, resulted in the development of a so-called “Ebola-Proof” tablet design. With and industrial-grade waterproof case designed to withstand chlorine baths at concentrations that would burn through human skin, the tablet represents a major improvement for healthcare workers facing informatics limitations posed by potentially infectious paper charts. Also promising: their use in any tropical or subtropical clinic location during the rainy season.

Which begs the question: why don’t we all use these tablets?

USAID’s Ebola Grand Challenge

Last but not least: a departure from what we might commonly think of as “innovation” in the form of USAID’s Ebola Grand Challenge, an innovation sourcing and funding program launched in the wake of the outbreak last fall. While funding for innovation is nothing new, nor are open innovation challenges, when you combine the two in the name of urgent global health solutions, “calling on the global health community to share pioneering ideas that deliver practical and cost-effective innovations in a matter of months”, great things can happen.

Identifying high-potential innovations at the idea stage, and then giving them the relatively minimal financial and market backing they need to develop, enables USAID to find and develop the exact tools and technologies that are needed when they are needed. Case in point: the Jhpiego PPE suit above was one of the first projects to receive funding from this program. While time will ultimately tell what will come of this innovation innovation, it’s worth considering whether future aid funding, across all sectors, would be well spent on similar programs.


How does technology impact your work? Do you have an innovative technology in production that’s making an impact in development and aid work? Are you currently researching or developing a new technology with great potential? We’d love to hear about it. To contribute tweet @PIN_Network or email


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