Lab-in-a-Backpack goes to work in Ecuador

Rice donates 24 diagnostic labs to treat patients in remote villages

Rice News staff

Rice University’s Lab-in-a-Backpack is going to Ecuador in a big way.

The ultra-portable diagnostic laboratory, designed by students in the university’s Rice 360˚: Institute for Global Health Technologies and Beyond Traditional Borders (BTB) initiative, is ready to be deployed. The Lab-in-a-Backpack will give villagers in the remote jungles and mountains of the South American nation better and faster access to modern health care.

The university sent 24 diagnostic labs to Ecuador in the last week of 2009; FedEx donated their transport. Next week, five Rice 360˚ and BTB representatives will train 48 health-care workers from across the nation in the capital city of Quito. Over the next 12 months, the backpacks will help provide care for an estimated 120,000 people.

The initiative is the boldest step yet in Rice’s development of the Lab, which began as a student project four years ago and has since been sent for more limited trials to Ecuador, Haiti, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Malawi, Lesotho, Botswana, Swaziland, and Myanmar. Nineteen students, faculty and staff members have worked on the pack’s design for more than three years.

We are honored to help the Ministry of Health and the Futuro Foundation provide health care to poor communities throughout Ecuador,” said Rebecca Richards-Kortum, chair and Stanley C. Moore Professor of Bioengineering at Rice and founder of Rice 360˚. “The backpacks are the result of the ingenuity and hard work of Rice students, faculty and clinical partners over three years, and we are excited to undertake our first country-wide distribution of a student-designed technology.”

The custom-designed and equipped backpacks provide clinicians with microscopes, centrifuges, pulse oximeters, otoscopes and other items one might need to diagnose an illness in the field. A custom-designed power-distribution box and solar cell ensure the equipment can be used anywhere, regardless of access to electricity.

Each year’s trials have led to further refinements based on real-world experience and feedback from clinicians, technicians and non-governmental organizations that have used the backpack to diagnose patients in the field.

The effort began when the Futuro Foundation, a nonprofit organization that promotes social, educational and medical programs for underserved Ecuadorian communities, introduced BTB Director Yvette Mirabal to officials at the Ecuador Ministry of Public Health. The ministry asked for 1,000 Labs for its EBAS (Equipos Básicos de Atención de Salud), which she described as half-ambulances, half-mobile clinics.

“They’re in use throughout the country,” said Mirabal, whose mother is Ecuadoran, “and the foundation thought the backpacks would be a perfect fit. When these emergency vehicles got as far as they could by road, doctors could carry the backpacks to where they’re needed.” She estimated 25 percent of Ecuadorans have very limited access to health care.

Mirabal will travel to Quito next week along with Lauren Vestewig, executive director of Rice 360˚; Maria Oden, professor in the practice of engineering education and director of Rice’s Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen (OEDK); Anna Godwin, BTB program associate, and Rice alumnus Stephen Wallace ’08, who streamlined the design of the custom-built components of the backpack and is now studying at Baylor College of Medicine.

Without a manufacturing facility, it was impossible to make 1,000 backpacks. But students, staff and faculty used resources at the OEDK to design and assemble the 24 Labs donated to Ecuador with the provision that Rice 360˚ and BTB receive a steady stream of feedback on their performance and the users’ ability to restock such disposable elements as bandages, needles and other items essential to the Lab’s efficacy.

Having established need for the Lab, and with a very public pat on the back from former President Bill Clinton at his Clinton Global Initiative University in New Orleans in 2008, Rice 360˚ and BTB are seeking ways to supply more to help the world’s poor.

“We have now generated enough interest that more and more people are coming to us,” said Oden. “Our goals are to develop a business model that will get the diagnostic packs into the field … and to do this in a financially sustainable way.”

Wallace, a bioengineering alum, returned to campus to coordinate the mechanics of assembling the Labs last spring. The Kentucky native spent weeks cutting deals with component manufacturers for all of the backpack’s elements. “A lot of my job has been contacting manufacturers and saying, ‘This is who we are, this is what we do. Are you in?’

“It’s amazing how receptive a lot of these companies have been,” he said, acknowledging in particular contributions by Medical Bridges, a Houston-based nonprofit that distributes donated medical supplies to developing nations; Osprey (backpacks); L.W. Scientific (centrifuges) and Orion Case (foam inserts). He estimated the current diagnostic Lab-in-a-Backpack can be assembled for about $1,600.

“I remember seeing this posted as a senior design project a few years ago, when I was a junior, and I thought, ‘Design? You’re just putting a bunch of stuff in a backpack. How hard is that?’ I quickly learned that it’s quite a feat.”

Wallace got a sense of the labs’ impact when he and Mirabal traveled to Ecuador last summer to join Rice students Stacey Skaalure ’09 and Andrea Ulrich ’12, who took three Labs there for a two-month tour of duty.

“It was incredible seeing how integrated they already were,” he said. “Some of the groups used the backpack like it had been there forever. It was great to see them being used.”

Follow the Rice team on the road to Ecuador on Twitter ( and through Facebook (

Skaalure and Ulrich detailed their experiences bringing Labs to Ecuador last summer in their blog at



About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.