Bring in the tech companies for intelligent homegrown solutions

Alvin Koh

Zhafri (left) with his partner Buquari Othman

Ivan Hoh

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Malaysia’s technology companies want to work with the government to battle the Covid-19 pandemic and help with the fallout from the Movement Control Order (MCO).

Innovative tech companies are putting their best foot forward and coming up with various solutions to the present crisis, but they have no access to people in government to take these further.

Ivan Hoh, CEO of bioinformatics company Codon Genomics Sdn Bhd, points out that in South Korea and China, tech companies are flourishing because they have been nurtured and funded for the past 10 years. Now, they are coming up with solutions for Covid-19 and exporting these globally.

“In Malaysia, the good tech companies cannot even reach the policymakers to offer help,” he notes.

What kind of help can Codon Genomics offer in this present situation? “We can contribute by applying our analytics and technology to unravelling and understanding the genetic basis of these infections, from both the perspective of the host and pathogen,” says Hoh.

“Basically, we can look into why certain patients develop serious repercussions even though they are young and healthy. We can also look at the dynamics of pathogen transmissions in terms of genetic clusters and their consequences.”

Hoh says the company can also look into how the different strains mutate in its various clusters and the epidemiological (incidence, distribution and possible control of the disease) impacts, and even the risk of transmission to pets. “We can even explore and develop new detection and diagnostics methods for Covid-19.”

He has called for special funding for technology companies to be used for research and solutions that will contribute to battling the pandemic. “Allow tech companies, either on their own or in collaboration with public institutions, to apply for grants under the [11th and 12th] Malaysia Plans to develop and promote local technologies. This is looking at the long term,” he says.

Even without government funding, others have taken up the call to come up with solutions to the pandemic. Twin Catalysts Sdn Bhd CEO Dr John Tang has spent the last few weeks developing what the company calls the “Elasti-Mask”. It is a disposable face mask with elastic edges that conforms to most face types and prevents air from leaking through the edges, thereby providing better protection in the highly infectious atmosphere of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Tang, a surgeon, tells Enterprise that he has always had a problem with conventional surgical masses because of the leakage through the sides, which steams up his spectacles during surgical procedures. But it was not until this outbreak that he was motivated to look for a solution to this leakage in the now potentially fatal atmosphere of the novel coronavirus.

“The most important feature of a mask is to be able to filter all the inhaled and exhaled air. The main issue with the current surgical mask is that the air can escape through the sides of the mask, thereby exposing you, or the people around you, to airborne Covid-19 droplets or other particles,” says Tang.

He is not too impressed with the N95 manufactured by 3M either. “True, it uses specific hard materials and contoured edges with firm elastic bands around the back of the head to press the edges of the mask stoutly onto the facial surface to prevent leakage. But such tight banding often causes discomfort with prolonged use and may still result in leakage when the person moves their face as gaps may appear due to poor fit or the relatively lower pulling pressure at the edges in between the bands,” he says.

Twin Catalysts is now looking for investors, government funding agencies, mask manufacturers, researchers and others in the medical device and healthcare industry to collaborate in producing the mask. “Ideally, we are seeking to partner a manufacturer that is willing to make the masks. Alternatively, we are seeking funding to manufacture the masks ourselves,” says Tang.

He adds that the company will be performing tests to confirm whether the Elasti-Mask can be a cheap replacement for the N95 respirator in certain circumstances, such as polluted cities or hospital emergency rooms. “The team is working around the clock, mostly via video conferencing, given the MCO.”

AI and machine learning company Blinkware Technology Sdn Bhd CEO Alvin Koh wants to modify one of its present products used to detect anomalies in teeth through X-ray image processing to detect anomalies in lungs related to the Covid-19 infection.

This engine could be utilised as a first line of defence to detect Covid-19 by feeding into it the images of the lungs of patients who have been tested positive for the virus,” says Koh.

Just by reading the X-rays of the lungs, the engine will be able to detect whether a patient has been infected by Covid-19 as there will be specific indications on the lungs of those who have it. 

But to develop this product further, Blinkware will need to work with a hospital that has been dealing with Covid-19 cases. “If we can obtain the X-rays of Covid-19 patients, it will speed up the process of developing this technology and potentially trialling it in live environments,” says Koh.

“What we envisage is that this platform could be used in clinics across Malaysia to enable all citizens to have a test done as a first line of defence. We all need to go back to work at some point. So, those who test negative could potentially go back while those who are positive can be isolated immediately and sent to a hospital to have the proper test done.”

But it is not only companies that are coming up with technologies to detect and address the pandemic that already have or can develop technologies that would be useful now. StixFresh International Sdn Bhd founder and CEO Zhafri Zainudin, who came up with a sticker the size of a 50-sen coin to arrest and delay the decay of certain fruits (mango, guava, starfruit and dragonfruit) is finding his technology especially relevant now.

He tells Enterprise that the company is now helping farmers and packers, mostly in Perlis, to extend the life of their fruit. “The fruit used to take three days to get to Kuala Lumpur and now, because of the MCO, it is delayed. Many arrive overripe and have to be thrown away. Before the MCO, the wastage was about 30%. Now, it is about 50%.”

The MCO took everyone by surprise and the farmers were not prepared.  Zhafri noticed that one week into the MCO, many of the fruits were not being sold and going rotten. “We have had dealings with farmers in Perlis for the past two to three years. But now, it is urgent. We posted our stickers so that before they pack the fruit, they can paste the stickers on them to help extend their shelf life.”

Because of the MCO, the farmers’ traditional customers, such as the wet markets and stalls, are not buying the fruit. So, they have been forced to look at selling their fruit online. There has been a surge in online business, interestingly from senior citizens who feel that consuming fruit, especially at a time like this, is very important to build up the immune system.

How does Zhafri want to work with the government to solve the issue of fruit going rotten, unsold and undelivered throughout the country because of the MCO? “Basically, I think we need to engage with the Agriculture Department in every state. We want them to be aware that we have this technology to prolong the shelf life of fruit. I hope the government can make this an initiative to help farmers. They are really suffering and we all need to help each other,” he says.

As the whole world goes into lockdown because of the coronavirus, Zhafri believes his technology has massive international applications. He wants to help raise awareness of and export the technology around the world.