Improving Public Health and Fighting COVID-19 Through Design Innovation

Irewole Akande grew up in Abuja, Nigeria, with big dreams of becoming an inventor. Upon graduation from high school he learned about Martin Cooper (EE ’50, M.S. ’57), the inventor of the cell phone, who attended Illinois Institute of Technology. Akande’s entrepreneurial spirit drove his desire to move to Chicago and begin creating his own success story at Illinois Tech.

Akande launched his career as an application engineer with WPG Americas Inc., a subsidiary of WPG Holdings, where he serves as the lead specialist for the internet of things, displays, memory, and embedded computing technologies. Concurrently, he is the chief technology officer and co-founder of City Health Tech, a public health startup that aims to use technology to build healthier communities and mitigate the spread of infectious diseases globally.

He shares, “I always knew that I would work on improving peoples’ lives and wanted to make an impact on the community.”

Akande met his business partner, Ibraheem Alinur, chief executive officer and co-founder of City Health Tech, at the Chicago Connectory two years ago. After reviewing information provided by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Akande was struck by the number of common cold cases reported each year in the United States, and how proper hand hygiene could help prevent serious illnesses and potentially save hours of productivity in schools and workplaces.

Since then, Alinur and Akande teamed up to build their first product—a device for sinks that teaches individuals how to properly wash their hands, while gathering data on actual handwashing practices.

Applying his background in connected devices and analytics, Akande helped to create a more interactive design to keep people engaged throughout the process.

“The full scale of our solution involves standardizing community health education with our IoT handwashing assistant Opal and an accompanying dashboard platform to visualize and gain insights from handwashing data,” says Akande.

Opal is a device that sits next to a faucet and guides the user through proper handwashing techniques for a minimum of 20 seconds, providing step-by-step instructions on a full-color display screen.

“It’s not about changing technology but changing the human mindset. Our goal is designing a device that will help change human behavior so that [people] can solve the problem,” Akande adds.

As the COVID-19 situation continues to evolve, City Health Tech is working toward partnering with elementary schools in the city to help communities that are most affected by the pandemic. City Health Tech plans to deploy their solutions to current customers (restaurants, office spaces, etc.) as communities look to return to normalcy in the fall. These plans include donating devices to schools in low-income districts from the company’s profits. In the future, they also hope to partner with different organizations to provide sponsored content to make the device affordable for as many people as possible.

With a desire to broaden his experience at Illinois Tech, Akande notes that courses such as  demography, philosophy, entrepreneurship, and the Interprofessional Projects (IPRO) Program helped him to understand and internalize the need to pursue engineering not just in its own right, but as a means of improving the community around him.

“In my engagements within the entrepreneurial world, I have been able to really stand out because my IPRO experiences really refined my thinking about problems and solutions and exemplify the balanced breakthrough model of innovation in all of my ventures,” he adds.

Akande shares that Illinois Tech transcends its peers through student diversity, design thinking, campus involvement, and leadership opportunities. He adds that the university’s student body coming from myriad countries and socio-economic backgrounds allows students to be exposed to different cultures and lifestyles.

“I would like to implore those with means to help create a community of cross-functional experts that spearhead initiatives to identify, mentor, and invest in the next generation of diverse entrepreneurs,” says Akande. “Specifically, funding minorities who are building novel products to tackle societal problems around the world to usher in a new generation of tech-focused businesses that will, in turn, elevate marginalized communities.”