The COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged societies, causing the biggest social and economic crisis in recent human history. Tens of millions of people are at risk of falling into extreme poverty. Nearly half of the world’s 3.3-billion workforce are at risk of losing their livelihoods. In North Macedonia alone, 17,026 people have lost their jobs between March and December 2020.
What are local innovators doing amidst all this? They are building on the needs the COVID-19 crisis has left behind, rising to the challenges to invent, transform societies, and help them adapt.
The “Smart Ventilator”
As the pandemic began, the need for medical equipment became urgent. This is what inspired Dimitrija Angelkov, a high school computer science professor and innovator from Kavadarci, a small town in the northern part of North Macedonia, to invent the country’s first ventilator. This “smart” breathing machine is quite easy to use and can work a minimum of 14 days without interruption. The device uses compressed air propulsion, instead of engines, which makes it one-of-a-kind.
How does it work? Ambu masks are manually placed in a chamber in which compressed air flows from the outside – creating pressure and pumping the mask, thus providing oxygen to the patient. The same pressure that pushes the ambu mask is then used to produce oxygen.
“Engines generate electromagnetic radiation that interferes with many medical devices, restricts the use of the respirator and creates noise. Such solutions do not pass medical tests, unlike air compressors that can stand in any room and at any distance from patients,” Angelkov told Trending Topics SEE. Twenty respirators have been produced so far – they are light, small and portable, made mostly of plastic parts and can be sterilized simply by using gas.
Angelkov has received both national and international recognition for his invention, winning the gold medal at the OFEED Morocco 2020 competition, support from the local Fund for Innovation and Technology Development (FITR), and an award at the innovation fair in North Macedonia Makinova2020.
However, this is by far not his first invention. He has produced numerous devices to facilitate the work of his students and to improve education in the country. He is well-known for his smart interactive school board – the first of its kind on the Balkans, smart bins for waste selection that use sophisticated artificial intelligence, not allowing anything other than PET plastic to be thrown into it, bricks made of plastic waste, etc.
Responding to the needs introduced by the COVDI-19 pandemic, he introduced visor masks for protection against the coronavirus and a mobile camera with a stand, designed to facilitate the process of online teaching and distance learning.
Call for innovators
Professor Angelkov has also announced ambitious plans for the future. Having received his award at “Makinova 2020”, he appealed to all enthusiasts, innovators, engineers and technicians to join him in innovating an oxygen production machine.
“Every day we hear that people in our hospitals are fighting for oxygen, we know that the monthly costs of procurement are high, and we, the innovators, can help and facilitate this fight,” he said.
One of his colleagues, an innovator, who already has the necessary permits to work with pressure vessels, has already responded to his appeal. They are now constructing the machine and will afterward seek to acquire the necessary permits for both domestic and institutional use.
“The oxygen machine is an upgrade of the smart ventilator. Together they can provide not only hospitals but also ambulances with the necessary equipment, as their cost is low and they are fully functional” Angelkov told Trending Topics SEE.
Protecting health and saving jobs
A lot of products, originally intended for different goals, found their purpose in alleviating the consequences brought upon by the COVID-19 crisis.
Nikola Gligorov and Ivica Pockov from Sveti Nikole, a town in the central part of North Macedonia, set off to invent an air purifier for large indoor areas as a response to air pollution – a growing issue in the winter period.
Their product “Plasma S” can now be used to keep workers safe from the coronavirus. It not only protects people’s health, but can save a lot of jobs, enabling companies that require a larger number of employees to work together in large indoor spaces to stay open during the pandemic. Such businesses include factories and clothing manufacturing companies, which are quite common in the East of North Macedonia.
“The advantage of this device is that it is completely safe and can be used in the presence of people in the room. In times of pandemic, “Plasma S” can be widely used in manufacturing factories or in rooms that are frequently visited by larger crowds. Installing such devices in factories will significantly reduce the spread of the virus among workers, thus helping the economy cope with the pressures it has faced over the past months”, Ivica told Trending Topics SEE.
“Plasma S” absorbs air in the room with a centrifugal fan and uses a multi-layer mechanic filtration to stop larger particles potentially containing viruses. Four powerful anion generators then ionize the air using plasma technology, thus neutralizing air particles and viruses. Additionally, six UVC lamps, built in the very top of the device, radiate UV light of a particular wave length that destroys nucleic acid in viruses and renders them harmless.
Nikola and Ivica are the authors of three other devices: UV Guard – Hepa Air Purifier, Аero S, and Air Guard. “UV Guard – Hepa Air Purifier” is an air purifier for domestic use with six stages of filtration, built-in UV lamps, and ionizer for active air disinfection.
“We have recently started mass production of the “UV Guard – Hepa Air Purifier”, Ivica said. Additionally, we have donated UV Guard devices that had already been built using similar technology to COVID centers in the country, as well as to people with disabilities. Our goal is for this product to be affordable and easily available for everyone, hence its price is at least three times lower than the purifiers on the market with similar performance”, Nikola told Trending Topics SEE.
“Aero S” is an outdoor air purifier, designed to be installed near busy areas and potential polluters. “Air Guard” is a device for measuring air quality, intended to accurately, precisely and regularly send data on PM particles, gases, temperature and humidity.
Telemedicine and online psychological support are perhaps the most adequate examples of innovative approaches that cater to one of the most apparent needs arising from this crisis – facilitated access to medical services.
Some private clinics in North Macedonia are using telemedicine, defined as the use of technology (computers, video, phone, messaging) by a medical professional to diagnose and treat patients in a remote location. Communication with patients is being digitized and the possibility of telemedicine reduces physical contact, while patients receive quality care and treatment.
Another issue that is getting a lot of attention in the context of COVID-19 is the need for mental health care. In this regard, there are investments in online services in the form of psychotherapy, psychiatric examinations, psychological counseling and support. This introduces a safe service for customers and employees and opens a completely new, potentially global market, that was formerly limited to a traditional way of working. For that purpose, software solution are being developed – digital platforms that guarantee secure access and security of personal data and content.
Digitalizing at the “speed of light”
By observing societies and businesses in their efforts to face challenges imposed by COVID-19, one cannot help but wonder: Has the crisis simply sped up processes that were inevitably going to happen?
The ICT sector in North Macedonia holds the highest paying jobs in the country and they will likely continue to grow, regardless of the crisis. At the same time, the industry faces a deficit of workforce – an estimated 600 employees only in 2019.
When looking at companies, at the beginning of the pandemic, the Fund for Innovation and Technological Development offered its beneficiaries to temporarily pause their activities in order to adapt to the new situation. Less than 5% of the total number of companies took this opportunity, which suggests they are in good shape.
The FITD has launched four open calls to support startup companies and technological development in 2020. The total amount invested was EUR 20 million euros, of which over EUR 11 million went to the companies themselves, as conditioned in the open calls. This means that 247 companies were confident enough to invest in their development in times of crises.
The data above could suggest two things. Firstly, that the ICT industry has enormous growth potential, which, frankly is no news. Secondly, societies are perhaps being reshaped by the crisis.
Technology, innovations, and digitalization might still be unpopular in certain industries, but will grow to be a way of life and a necessity for every successful business. In the past year North Macedonia has seen markets, restaurants, clothes shops, medical and many other services going digital. What is more, businesses in marketing, insurance, and other intellectual-based professions have successfully put in place systems that enable them to function almost completely online.
Processes in food production and agriculture are being automated – made “safer” from virus transmission and faster. COVID-19 might very well have given societies “a shove” towards digitalization. A change that was bound to happen and will continue to reshape life as we know it, creating more resilient business models that facilitate access of services, but also completely restructuring the labor market in the process.