uOttawa Makerspace Challenge focusing on oximeters for Gaza

Students at the University of Ottawa looking to innovate healthcare technology will unveil their designs Tuesday for affordable oximeters bound for Gaza, all part of this year’s Makerspace Challenge Finale.

By Stephen Karmazyn

The difficulty in acquiring affordable and reliable medical technology for developing nations was the driving force behind the competition. Students were tasked with constructing oximeters – devices that measure oxygen levels in the blood – that would cost $25.

The idea for this year’s challenge was born when uOttawa professor Hanan Anis learned about Dr. Tarek Loubani, an emergency room doctor in London who was building affordable stethoscopes to be used in Gaza.

Dr. Loubani frequently travels there and works to find affordable health-tech innovations that can provide services to the people of the war-torn area.

“(The projects Dr. Loubani organized) really captured my imagination,” Ms. Anis said. She approached Dr. Loubani with the intent to continue to help with stethoscopes, but he replied that what Gazan doctors were really in need of now were functioning oximeters.

Ms. Anis said that a good pulse oximeter can cost around $1600, far beyond the means of a poor region like the Gaza Strip.

“(Doctors in developing nations) look at the patient . . . under the ear, under the tongue, they figure out if you’re oxygen deprived or not. Sixty per cent of the time they are correct, but 40 per cent they are not.”

Pulse oximeters would dramatically improve their ability to treat patients, she said, adding she wanted this challenge to help guide her students towards social entrepreneurship.

“We have been advocating for years for an entrepreneurial mindset among our students,” she said, “but in recent years we have been starting to work on the social enterprise concept. A lot of the engineering students in particular have this mindset of ‘I can volunteer and do good, and then I can start a company and make lots of money.’ Integrating the two concepts is not very clear in their head.”

This is the second Makerspace Challenge at the university. Last year’s contest was to create the best 3D-printed prosthetic hand for a local 6-year old boy.  

Ms. Anis hopes that the expansion of the Makerspace will allow Ottawa to return to its hardware roots.

“In the past ten years . . . Ottawa has moved towards the software brand. Every university student is creating an app. The makerspace with its open hardware is really to facilitate prototyping and lower the barriers for anyone who wants to do a startup . . . that has hardware and software, or hardware only. Ottawa has had a very strong hardware base, there is a lot of expertise [in the city]. It bothers me that we have been [focused] on software.”

She also hopes that the winning oximeter design will not only be shipped to Gaza, but potentially to developing states across the globe.

The winner of the challenge will be announced on March 29 and receive a $1000 prize.