LOGAN SQUARE — Hand washing is one of the best weapons against the coronavirus, but it’s only effective if it’s done properly.
Experts have come out with recommendations — sing the “Happy Birthday” song twice, scrub in between your fingers and your thumbs et. al. But, according to Chicago engineers Ibraheem Alinur and Irewole Akande, there’s too much room for error.
For the last three years, Alinur, 23, and Akande, 25, have been building a device for sinks that both teaches people how to wash their hands properly and collects data on hand washing. And now with the coronavirus gripping the country they’re aiming to get the device to market as soon as possible.
The device detects when your hands get close to the bowl. It has a full color display that goes through the specific steps of hand washing — wash the palms of your hands, then in between your fingers — and a bar on the bottom that shows you how long you’ve been washing your hands.
Over the last several months, the entrepreneurs have been piloting the device at various elementary schools on the South Side. They’ve also partnered with businesses including a Downtown law firm and a food and beverage company.
The goal, Alinur said, is to get the device into schools in low-income communities on the South Side and then scale up from there.
“This has become really, really important,” Alinur said. “Everyone should have these. If we do want to return to work and make sure we’re saving lives, this is one of the only ways we can do that.”
Alinur, who is currently studying engineering at Northwestern University, came up with the idea for a sink-side hand washing device three years ago, long before the pandemic gripped the world.
“I’ve been making hand washing jokes for three years and now all of a sudden everyone’s making a meme,” Alinur said with a laugh.
Alinur said at the time he was struck by the statistics that each year millions of days of schools are missed and billions of hours of productivity are lost due to preventable illness.
The idea came into focus after Alinur talked to his mom, a longtime nurse, about her hand washing struggles and he ended up pitching it for his human-centered product design class.
“Every time she washes her hands, and she washes her hands four to five times an hour, [she’s] going to have to sing the ‘Happy Birthday’ song twice? Everybody would be driven insane. That’s why people don’t do it,” Alinur said.
Alinur’s device idea didn’t go over well with his classmates. In fact, no one liked it. He remembers them saying, “Why should I care about hand washing?”
But Alinur said, “I knew it was a problem and I kept tinkering at it.”
Roughly a year later Alinur met Akande, also an engineer and a recent graduate of the Illinois Institute of Technology, at a startup incubator and the two teamed up on the project together.
Things were going well; the pair raised about $25,000 at local startup competitions to build the device and formally launched a company, called City Health Tech. But everything changed when the coronavirus took hold.
“It went from a nice thing and we can really start making a change to ‘Oh crap, this is an emergency, we can really start saving lives,’ ” Alinur said.
In the coming weeks, the entrepreneurs plan to build up a solid customer base to get the devices out sometime this fall. Once the devices are installed, the data collecting can begin.
“You see all of these numbers — hundreds of thousands of people who die everyday, even before the virus. That can easily be solved just by people washing their hands,” Alinur said.
Each device costs roughly $75, but the entrepreneurs said that price will go down if demand increases. They plan to charge schools in high-income districts, so they can make the devices free for schools in low-income districts.
They also hope to work with corporations and play ads on the devices to help get free devices to those who need them the most.
Block Club Chicago’s coronavirus coverage is free for all readers. Block Club is an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom.
Subscribe to Block Club Chicago. Every dime we make funds reporting from Chicago’s neighborhoods.