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Student Startup Produces Device to Help Handwashing

Senior Ibraheem Alinur’s company City Health Tech is looking to help people wash up, collect data on their practices

Opal is a wireless waterproof device that sits next to the faucet while giving handwashing instructions.Opal is a wireless waterproof device that sits next to the faucet while giving handwashing instructions.

In 2017, Ibraheem Alinur was sitting in the Ford Motor Company Engineering Design Center during a class about human-centered design when the Northwestern Engineering student remembered something his mother told him — information that inspired him to create Opal, a device that aims to encourage people to wash their hands properly.
At the time, Alinur’s mother Bebe was studying to be a nurse and recently had spent an entire class learning how handwashing can drastically reduce the spread of infections. She told her son people were encouraged to sing “Happy Birthday” twice to make sure they washed long enough.

Ibraheem Alinur

“When I heard that’s what they’re teaching medical professionals to do, I paused,” said Alinur, now a senior majoring in industrial engineering. “There’s no way anybody is doing that every time they wash their hands.”

Driven to solve this problem, the entrepreneurial Alinur formed a team that developed Opal, a wireless waterproof device with a screen that sits next to the faucet. With colorful on-screen prompts, Opal coaches people through the proper handwashing steps, then thanks them for their efforts, and also collects data about handwashing. The 3D printed device itself was built using prototyping facilities at The Garage, Northwestern’s incubator for student-run businesses.
Now, after three years of research and prototyping, 18 Northwestern students — 10 from the McCormick School of Engineering — are on the team at City Health Tech, a company Alinur founded. The team is supported by the lab of Erica Hartmann, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Heather Aranyiadjunct lecturer at the Farley Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation.
“A lot of people are paying attention to handwashing now,” Alinur said. “It’s one of those interesting moments when we should be focused but we don’t pay attention. Opal makes us slow down and wash our hands better.”
Today, as the COVID-19 pandemic deepens, Alinur feels a new urgency. Customers can buy the device on City Health Tech’s website. For each unit purchased, one will be donated to a low-income school. Ahead of the quarantine orders, five Chicago-area schools had Opal installed.
Alinur hopes around 100 will be distributed to first responders and essential services within the next two months. By fall, he’s looking for Opal to be in more area schools and businesses, and he hopes Opal will be installed by individual homeowners by early 2021, as handwashing gains attention because of the ongoing pandemic.
“We have a real opportunity as a society now to redesign the way we’re living and putting in strategic technology, not only to prevent future diseases and pandemics now, but also in the foreseeable future for all of humanity,” he said.