The medical backpack - A way to sterilize medical equipment using solar energy

November 11, 2014

Siemens Stiftung: How did you come up with the idea of developing a device that helps to conduct “germfree operations everywhere”?

Raphael: Philipp and me got to know each other during our studies of engineering in Nordhausen. There we developed a special water processing device - run by solar energy - to produce sterilized water from waste water. This device has become the heart of the medical backpack. To do more research we continued our studies at the University of Kassel, where we focused on the field of renewable energies. Via the notice board we looked for an economist to help us making use of the solar-run water processing device. Martin happened to stumble across this notice.

Often new ideas arise from old experiences. It was the same with us. We often discussed the quality of water and how badly needed. We also talked about our stays in Africa and soon we developed the idea of producing a medical backpack with an integrated water processing unit. 

Many doctors were  enthusiastic about our idea, because they experienced the problem of power failures in developing countries. This was the beginning of our idea and we carefully planned a medical backpack that could be operated just by solar energy.

In the first version of the backpack we had also planned a cooling unit and a bottling device for the pure water - besides the sterilization of surgical instruments. Integrating these three features became a problem due to legal hurdles. Finally we put our focus on a device that cleans, disinfects and sterilizes contaminated surgical instruments solely with the help of the sun.

Doctors working in developing countries are so enthusiastic about our idea that they can hardly wait to get this backpack for their emergency operations. Robust medical processing devices  without electricity to  make surgical instruments germfree are desperately needed in developing regions

Siemens Stiftung: Your product is called “rucksackspende”, which means translated: donating a backpack. Could you explain the concept behind this name and tell us how close you are to starting to produce the backpacks?

Raphael: We know that most of the people, who need sterile instruments cannot afford the medical backpack. So we sell the backpack to businesses, private persons and societies, who tend to be socially engaged. The growing CSR-market and the widespread readiness to give donations appear to be a solid basis. The customers shall have a say as to where the backpack is to be sent. We also expect that NGOs will purchase the medical backpacks for their emergency services. Some big companies as well as private persons have already made confirmed reservations for the backpack. In developing, producing and selling the medical backpack we offer a niche product on an attractive market.

It is also planned to sell the backpack directly to doctors in developing regions, who can afford it. We will cooperate with micro credit and fair trade organisations to bring the backpack to as many people as possible.

Siemens Stiftung: What impact does your medical backpack have in areas that are likely to suffer epidemies? And how important is communication and education about the importance of sterile instruments onsite?

Raphael: With our backpack we offer  doctors a completely new type of device, which will - by the mere use of solar energy - clean, disinfect and sterilize contaminated surgical instruments. Thanks to its integrated water treatment plant it produces the necessary  clean water even from contaminated water out of rivers or the sea. Due to the use of solar energy the device is completely self-sufficient and independent of any supply of electricity or gas. In case of fluctuating sunshine a new type of storage technology enables the safe use of solar energy in medical technology. The device agrees with CE regulations, it is extremely save in use, robust and also can easily be operated. The integration into a backpack makes it  easily transportable to any remote region.

Communication and education are very important and have to be part of every project facing hygienical problems in developing regions. The medical backpack is just a technical tool to easily realize the things you have learned about clean and sterile instruments. It should be part of a project but not the only thing. If you just give a medical backpack to people without education in medical, hygiene l and, of course, technical issues, you will not solve the problem.

Siemens Stiftung: Having the instruments stored in a backpack helps to keep doctors and nurses mobile. How important is the personal flexibilty and mobility of the medical staff in rural areas and wouldn’t  it be cheaper and easier for medical staff to buy welded surgical instruments?

Raphael: Mobility is not the main part of the medical backpack. It is our aim that the backpack can be carried some miles to reach people even in very remote areas but it is not planned to move to another village every day.

If doctors or nurses move a lot they should use the sterile containers included in the medical backpack. The containers are save in use, there is no risk of injuring and the instruments stay sterile until they are used. Welding is not a suitable solution  as it requires additional welding machines and paper. Normally there are no shops or hospitals to buy sterile welded instruments, because there are no machines for sterilizing. In very remote areas you do not even have access to single use instruments. Additionally, single use instruments are not a sustainable solution,  they need a lot of energy and water during production. It is very difficult to keep alive a supply chain for instruments in remote areas.

Siemens Stiftung: In terms of financing,  you placed rucksackspende.de onto the crowdfunding-page “startnext.de”. How are your experiences so far and what would you recommend to someone considering setting up his/her start-up on such a page?

Raphael: The experience with startnext is very good. Because it’s the biggest crowdfunding platform in Germany, we have a lot of traffic not only from our users but also from startnext-users, who have a look at other projects. We can recommend this platform for crowdfunding campaings with a focus on the German language.

Siemens Stiftung: Do you believe that initiatives such as the “empowering people. Network” can be beneficial to developmental work? How can you benefit from the Network personally?

Raphael: A Network is very important; there are lots of great ideas which face different problems in developing regions. Sometimes projects can be more efficient if they work together and share their experiences.

In the very short time since we are part of the network we could make some new contacts, which are really helpful, especially for experience of working conditions and needs of people in developing regions.

Raphael Schönweitz
Raphael Schönweitz

Raphael Schönweitz studied renewable energy engineering at the university of Nordhausen before he came to Kassel to do his Master of Science in technical thermodynamics, which he finished in 2013. At rucksackspende Raphael is responsible for technical calculation and planning. During a stay abroad he got to know the widespread miserable medical care in Africa and now wants to improve the situation with rucksackspende.