Venezuelan DIY science project hits stumbling block
A Venezuelan-designed 'LavaAmp' — used widely as an example of an emerging do-it-yourself (DIY) science since 2010 — is struggling to get off the ground.
The initiative promised to deliver a low-cost portable device capable of analysing blood to help diagnose infectious diseases in low-income communities. It was heralded as being a particularly important technology for developing countries, where disease testing can take days to perform and is prohibitively expensive for local people.
But according to Guido Núñez-Mujica, one of the project leaders, LavaAmp's future is now threatened by a lack of funding. After building a first prototype for just over US$20,000, and additionally investing just over US$30,000 — obtained from the Chilean government project StartUp Chile — the team now needs at least US$150,000 to complete the final prototype.
LavaAmp is a rugged and inexpensive handheld 'DNA amplifier' (also known as a PCR machine), used for performing DNA tests for infectious diseases. It is not limited to testing one specific disease, but works as a hardware platform for testing many different illnesses.
Its low cost and accessibility would pave the way for low-income communities, who otherwise lack access to diagnostic tools, being able to identify diseases more easily, and thus to seek treatment. The aim is that the device will be used to treat both new pandemics and neglected diseases.
"The money we need to raise would be used to pay for laboratory equipment, materials, and salaries for the team, so everyone can work full-time to develop the project," Núñez-Mujica tells SciDev.Net.
If they could secure funding, the team would need nine more months to complete the final prototype, he explains. There would then be a trial phase, to identify whether people with limited technological abilities can use the device on their own.
But "gathering funds can be very complicated," Núñez-Mujica says. The start-up team has approached bigger companies and funders, but he says the competition with other development projects has been fierce, and expresses concerns that projects such as his are a low priority for funders.
And while the funding needed is a major obstacle for the team, it pales in comparison to the amount being poured into similar projects in more orthodox organisations, such as universities and research institutions, he says.
Rob Carlson, a physicist who was in charge of the company that designed the hardware for the first LavaAmp prototype says LavaAmp is an example of DIY science as a "start-up trying to make it to market".
But Carlson adds that technical problems could delay the launch of field trials.
"Getting the whole project working requires solving some problems in sample handling and microfluidics," he explains. And to solve these problems, the team will need more funding.