lend the community a hand. a clean one. || the story of puriphico.
Updated: Dec 27, 2020
The story of how I, a high school student with no tech background, started a tech company to help my community battle the COVID-19 virus.
Imagine if there were a way to prevent up to 21% of all respiratory infections (including colds, the flu, and, most recently, Coronavirus) contracted annually. Imagine if we could prevent 1 million deaths each year and reduce diarrheal-associated deaths by up to 40%. These may all sound like farfetched prospects, but the common solution lingers right in our hands.
Recently, with the rapidly-expanding Coronavirus, we have all been put to the test - socially, physically, and mentally. The relentless emphasis on social-distancing practices, the routine use of masks, and self-quarantining have derogated the importance of one of the most preeminent factors involving the contraction of the virus - handwashing. Stressing the importance of washing one’s hands ‘the right way,’ leading health experts have repeatedly demonstrated touch, namely contact through the hands, as one of the leading actors in the contraction of all infections and diseases. While most Americans know they should wash their hands for a minimum of 20 seconds, other factors, unfortunately, tend to feel more pertinent in the moment. We have all experienced the familiar hurry to a meeting (albeit on Zoom), a hankering for an afternoon snack, a place to be that makes us think: “Eh, I’ll make an exception just this once.” It is these exceptions, the culprits, that foster the formation of unhealthy habits - those most detrimental to the health and well-being of our communities.
While we have all seen the ‘solutions’ crowding the internet in recent months, notably the idea of singing while you wash your hands, I felt that a concrete solution was lacking. To put the matter into perspective, it is much less likely that you would brush your teeth for the full two minutes if you had to sing, for example, while you did so (for the sake of the example, assume you would be singing in your head). The toothbrush timer, ensuring accuracy and keeping our good habits in check, significantly diminishes our chances of gum disease, cavities, and other dental issues (not to mention a painful trip to the dentist). That’s why I, a high school student ignorant to the complexities of technology, set out to create an electronic system to aid users in monitoring their handwashing real-time, ensuring that they meet the global health standard of 20 seconds.
The provisionally-patented device, encapsulated in a cylindrical case, consists of an Arduino Nano 33 BLE Sense, a PIR sensor, an OLED screen, and two LED’s (one green, one red). Using auditory and visual inputs, the device determines whether or not someone is washing their hands (I am still seeking to improve the accuracy of the detection system through calibration methods, so if you think you can help, please reach out using the info below!). Upon user detection, the device will simultaneously trigger a timer and a red LED, which will flash once per second. Assuming the user has reached 20 seconds of handwashing, the red light will turn off, now replaced by a green light that will flash three times, indicating that the user is good to go! If the user doesn’t reach the 20 second mark, however, the red light will turn off after it no longer detects the user. This data will be displayed on the OLED screen within the device, indicating a ratio between the total number of times people washed their hands against the number of times they reached 20 seconds. I am still perfecting the system (and learning to implement a system that recognizes signature sound frequencies of hand scrubbing with soap), so if you feel you can offer me any help in this regard as well, don’t hesitate to reach out! More information will be provided below.
My story begins long before COVID - before the world was cooped up inside with its toilet paper and mask collections and before the world had to separate for safety. Standing in the restroom line at a coffee shop, I waited to wash my hands before delving into the microwave-heated (no accusations here) bacon and egg sandwich awaiting me outside. Throughout the entire morning, I had been stressing over ways in which I, by means of science, could aid the community in some way, shape, or form. While I have always been a curious learner and avid experimenter, it wasn’t until I applied to Caltech’s Community Science Academy that I was truly inspired to take action and develop something utilitarian. Without the sage advice of my parents, suggesting that I take a step back to observe, I doubt I would have ever been so attentive in a bathroom. My observations are best left undescribed, but alas, the murky rivers traversing the white tiles, the pungent, unidentifiable smell, everything you can imagine hit me all at once. When it was my turn to wash my hands, only then did I realize how quickly the line had moved - how little time the people before me had spent washing their hands (an unnerving realization, might I add). Naturally, my desperate mind got to thinking, and within the next few hours, Puriphico was born.
I dreamt up a miniature device - one which could be attached to or implemented in a sink faucet - that would detect a person’s handwashing and alert them when they have sufficiently washed their hands (ie. after 20 seconds). It was a simple concept, like the toothbrush timer, which could help people uphold more effective handwashing practices. I imagined it would serve especially useful as a faucet-compatible device in hospitals, where signs reminding you to wash your hands for 20 seconds line the walls. Despite its origins as a proposal in the application process, feeling an instant connection with the idea, I resolved to make it a reality. Nearing the closure of 8th grade, I got to building - more like reading, and then building. Using my savings, I bought several Arduino manuals, programming books, and an Arduino starter kit (I had to start somewhere) and by the end of the week, after much frustration, exhaustion, and wanting to strangle my Arduino, the circuit was complete! It appeared as a strewn mesh of wires with a small screen depicting two numbers; for me, however, it was much more than that: a symbol of what I could accomplish in a week and a motivator to build better iterations of the device.
Experimenting with different microcontrollers, screens, and sensors, I naturally developed an aptitude for circuits - circuits intended for handwash-monitoring and detection, that is. I tested ATtiny microcontrollers, Arduino Nano variants, Arduino Nano knockoffs, you name it - if it was compatible with Arduino IDE, I used it.
Despite all my testing, I struggled to fulfill my hopes of building a miniature device - the endless complications, debugging, and frustration caused me to lose momentum as the project lagged for longer than I hoped. On a jog one day, above the steady rhythm of our feet, my father and I pondered ways to make the device smaller until we came upon the realization that the device did not need to be small. The reimagined prototype which I would soon build served the same purpose of handwashing detection and monitoring, only it was not embedded in the sink faucet; rather, it would stand as its own product to be placed adjacent to one’s sink faucet. It would no longer be a small, understated, faucet-restricted device: it would appear as a stylish home accessory - a design piece that would carry an alternate function. Though I aspired to implement the device in hospitals, restaurants, and schools, the only path forward pointed to the independent consumer. With a new mindset in place, I worked through the summer and first semester of 9th grade, using my regained momentum to win a fellowship for science and engineering under the family of Nobel Prize-winning chemist George Olah.
The fellowship bound me to a tight schedule, but it also unlocked a myriad of opportunities; I worked on my project in between classes, during lunch breaks, and after school, constantly educating myself on all aspects of the tech, innovation, and business world. With the firm belief that anyone can make a difference in the community, I persistently reminded myself that all great people had to start somewhere - nothing was stopping me from doing the same. Why wait?
A recent survey (informal poll) I conducted found that 98% of students were aware of the 20-second handwashing requirement. So, you may be asking: If people already know, then what is the point? The second aspect of the survey found that, despite this, only 37% of students consistently washed their hands for 20 seconds (an even more unsatisfying number when considering how many people filter out the exceptions).
I am convinced that failure to meet the time requirement is not due to ill will; rather, it is often the result of our naturally inaccurate sense of time, whereby something lasting only a few seconds may, at times, feel as if it were much longer. What’s more: many self-enforced practices are easy to break, such as singing to oneself while handwashing. It is for these reasons that I believe my device can truly bear a positive impact on the health of our communities, especially during times as trying as in the Coronavirus pandemic.
It sounds simple; it seems trivial, and, in truth, it is. What is not trivial, however, is the impact proper handwashing can bear on our health - the wellness of the elderly, hospitalized patients, restaurant customers, students, and more. With your help and support, we can change the way we wash our hands for the better, reaping all the benefits in the process.
By spreading awareness and selling these devices, I hope Puriphico can educate our communities on the importance of proper handwashing and provide a means by which users can uphold effective practices (even in a stylish way!). With hopes to one day contribute Puriphico’s proceeds to clean water movements around the world, I firmly believe that with your help, together we can make a difference in the world, in the lives of others, in our communities, schools, and hospitals by correcting the unfortunate handwashing habits that have manifested in our daily lives. It is possible to make the world a better place - I am starting one pair of hands at a time.
I truly value all the help you can offer me and respect all suggestions. If you can offer any technological assistance, follow the information below to reach out!
The data cited in this paper can be found here.
You can support me, my journey, and my cause by subscribing to my website puriphico.com and following @Adrian Lazzi on Twitter and Facebook as well as @puriphico on Instagram. On my website, you can also reach out through the ‘Contact Us’ page.