Graduate Zach Jones Dedicated to Medical Devices for Developing Nations

Written June 2006

Zach JonesNewly minted biomedical engineering graduate Zach Jones wants to make a real difference in the lives of people world-wide, and he isn’t wasting any time getting there. Inspired by a capstone design course that led him to produce multiple medical devices already in use around the globe and his experiences traveling in Chile, Jones has started a company with a decidedly altruistic aim: the improvement of medical care for people in developing nations.

For Jones, it all started coming together when he took the new capstone design course BME 261/262: Design for the Developing World from professor of the practice Robert Malkin as a junior.

The new course is a traditional capstone design course, yet the design problems addressed are anything but traditional, Malkin said. The course offers students the opportunity to gain design experience by developing a device in demand at clinics and hospitals of the developing world.

“Professor Malkin said, ‘Here’s what we need. Now go and build it,’” Jones said. “For me–— that was great. Suddenly, I was able to find an application for all the abstract concepts that I had learned in earlier courses.”

Jones’ student team built an electrocardiogram (ECG) tester device that simulates the normal sinus rhythm of the heart at different speeds. The ECG tester has already found use in El Salvador to help repair bedside heart monitors in a maternity hospital.

“It’s so fantastic for students,” Jones added. “Where else could you build a device that would go right out and get used? In the U.S., it could take years before a product would be in use; in Malkin’s program, after six months, students’ devices are in use in the developing world–— saving lives.”

The key to success is on-the-ground market research in the developing world done through the Duke-Engineering World Health Summer Institute. Students visit developing world hospitals and interview the staff about their technology needs. From the hundreds of ideas that the students bring back, a few are selected for development through the class.

The course has only been offered twice so far, but many of the projects are already having an impact according to Malkin, with Jones’ project a case in point.

Yet for Jones, that was just the beginning. After completing the class, he continued working under Malkin’s guidance through an independent study aimed at the development of an oxygen sensor. The sensor can determine if an oxygen concentrator, ventilator or infant incubator is working correctly.

“The really novel part of the sensor is how it transduces the concentration of oxygen,” Jones said. “I was looking at about a dozen different ways of doing it.”

Jones settled on a method that relies on a hearing aid battery. The impedence–— or opposition to current flow–— changes in proportion to the amount of oxygen in the air almost linearly, he explained. Hundreds of his sensors were built and sent to places around the world, including Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Tanzania, Jones said.

Staff at the global relief organization International Aid took to the device almost immediately, according to reports from Billy Teninty, the group’s director of medical equipment technology.

“Though it took a few minutes to familiarize ourselves with the oxygen tester (we couldn't constrain ourselves to wait for the user manual), it turned out to be a nice piece of equipment Â… this is an excellent little tester,” Teninty said in an email.

The group took the tester to Louisiana with them when they responded to Hurricane Katrina. Later, the oxygen sensor traveled to Indonesia with International Aid staffers to help in the rebuilding of hospitals damaged by the Christmas tsunami of 2004.

“Without it, we'd have had no way to confirm oxygen concentrations,” perhaps leaving infant incubators and ventilators unusable, Teninty said.

For Jones, the coursework design experience--along with personal experiences at rural clinics in Chile--evolved into a start-up company aimed at the production of low-cost, minimal feature biomedical instruments.

“Chile is arguably the most prosperous country in South America, yet the clinics in rural communities have next to nothing,” he said. “Some of the exam rooms I’ve seen are heated by wood-burning stoves.”

One of the biggest unmet technological needs in such clinics, he realized, was a low-cost ECG machine.

Indeed, a small, battery powered ECG device that can be used in both monitoring and diagnostic capacities–— with a cost of goods sold of less than $28--is to be the first product for Jones’ startup Endeavor Medical Inc.

The device, which would interface with a $100 laptop now in development at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s media lab, is expected to sell for $65. By comparison, the average price of a typical new ECG machine is $3300, Jones said.

Endeavor Medical was a finalist in the inaugural CUREs competition, launched through Duke’s chapter of Engineering World Health. CUREs rewards students for developing sustainable business ideas that improve health care in developing countries with a top prize is $100,000 of funding and a year of incubation in Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering.

Although his team didn’t ultimately win the CUREs competition, Jones remains undaunted.

“This experience has been great, because it’s made me think about things at the global level,” Jones said. “It’s also been my first foray into the entrepreneurial world.”

Jones said he plans to test Endeaver Medical Inc.’s ECG machine in rural Chile with the help of connections there.