Innovating to Fight Ebola

The “Design Retrofit” Team at Work (Photo by Wendy Taylor)

The “Design Retrofit” Team at Work (Photo by Wendy Taylor)

The United States is mobilizing an “all hands on deck” approach to fight the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, reduce the global health risk of this devastating disease and ensure that the US health care system is prepared. One key opportunity is to make the personal protective equipment (PPE) health care workers wear more comfortable and easier to put on and take off. New solutions will let nurses and doctor’s work longer shifts in the hot and humid environment in West Africa, and will make it easier to take off the equipment, reducing the risk of infection for health care workers both here and abroad.

To address this urgent need, earlier this month USAID launched Fighting Ebola: A Grand Challenge for Development, in partnership with the Centers for Disease Control, the Department of Defense and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), to rally innovators, scientists, and experts to generate pioneering solutions to improve delivery of care and stem the spread of Ebola.  Through this Challenge we will develop, fund and test PPE solutions. Our goal is to have solutions in the field in months, not years.

To jumpstart this process, on October 10th and 11th OSTP and USAID convened more than 100 engineers, makers, sensors experts, manufacturers and scientists to brainstorm and rapid-prototype PPE solutions.  By the end of the first day, more than 12 teams had generated potential solutions that were made real the next day at a DC design and fabrication space.  The ideas represented the range of skills and expertise of participants. 

One team came up with “Design retrofit”, a one-piece back-entry PPE design inspired by wetsuits, with external grab tags and boot flaps to make the PPE easier to remove.  They rapidly prototyped their product, modifying the solution 5 times with end-user input from Ebola field experts and PPE leaders. The team -- including a low-cost device start-up founder, a leader in the maker movement, and a "senior maverick" at a Fortune 500 company -- illustrated the cross-function and cross-organization collaboration spurred by the event.  Many other ideas emerged from the two-day meeting including:

  • “Viral chromic” suits that will change color when the fabric has contact with contaminant; 
  • Shipping containers converted into “cool zones” to allow workers to recover; 
  • Technology like Bluetooth stethoscopes and virtual care tools (i.e. tablets) to offload tasks and allow for better communication; and
  • Cooling suits with drainable water and plumbing.

To succeed in the fight against Ebola, we need the talents and expertise of all Americans -- whether you are designers, engineers, scientists or data scientists. We need your best ideas.  Please share your ideas and submit them for funding and partnerships today at
We need more comfortable PPE.  We need new ways to simplify clinical processes.  We need new tools that continue to create a safer clinical environment, including through improved infection control and waste disposal.  With your bold thinking and engagement, we can give health workers the tools they need to fight Ebola.

Claudia Williams is Senior Health and Health IT Advisor at the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy (OSTP) and Wendy Taylor is Director of the Center for Accelerating Innovation and Impact at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).