Tapping the sun for safer healthcare

A new device that can sterilise surgical instruments using just sunlight and water could help to prevent infections and save lives in rural areas and disaster-struck zones.

dentists for africa
RSO Shift partner Dentists for Africa delivers medical services in the field. In areas with no electrical access or clean water, it can be challenging to sterilise medical equipment properly. Image: RSO Shift

Visit parts of Africa and it might seem as though the healthcare advances of the past few decades did not happen at all. Stymied by a lack of clean water and reliable electricity, doctors have struggled to carry out safe and hygienic surgeries in rural villages as well as in disaster-struck areas across the world.

Philipp Odernheimer and Raphael Schönweitz, two German engineers, learned of this harsh reality when they explored parts of rural Africa during their university years and spoke to a retired paediatrician who was providing medical care and surgeries to children in the remote parts of the continent. 

Shaken by their experiences, they teamed up with Martin Reh, a business economist, to form RSO Shift, a company dedicated to inventing durable and energy self-sufficient medical devices for use in developing regions. The United Nations has estimated that about 1.4 billion people globally do not have access to electricity, and about 670 million people go without clean water. 

Now, the three co-founders have created the LifeShift Steriliser, a portable machine that can sterilise surgical instruments such as scalpels, tweezers, clamps and needles using just sunlight and water from any source, even potentially contaminated ones such as rivers, lakes and wells.

 The steriliser’s rucksack-like carrier system also means that people can carry it across areas with difficult terrain, such as areas without paved roads or where the paths have been damaged. “This makes the device an especially practical solution for use in natural disaster zones,” says Reh.

Ensuring safe surgeries everywhere

The steriliser’s journey from idea to prototype was beset with difficulties. After the three co-founders set up shop in a small garage, they had to contend with technical failures and fundraising problems, and get by for months without an income. 

One of their supporters is the American software company Autodesk. Through its Entrepreneur Impact Program, the company grants software to early-stage hardware start-ups in the social and environmental sectors to get their products to market faster.

To be eligible, companies have to be less than five years old, have fewer than 10 employees and earn less than US$1 million in annual revenue.

RSO Shift uses Autodesk’s Inventor software to develop 3D models of its steriliser and fine-tune the design, as well as Autodesk’s Vault software to manage its design data and track the different versions of the steriliser.  The start-up also tapped on the Autodesk Entertainment Creation Suite to create an animated short film to explain the steriliser’s features. 

“It’s very expensive for a start-up to buy these computer programs, so being able to get them for free was a tremendous help,” says Reh.

We will travel to the remote parts of these countries and test the device under real conditions. We want to make sure that the device is easy to operate for doctors and nurses.

Martin Reh, co-founder, RSO Shift

The LifeShift Steriliser can use any source of water because it has an internal filter that can catch contaminants such as bacteria. After the water is pumped in and filtered, it is heated by solar collectors that convert sunlight into heat.

To sterilise surgical instruments, users just have to give them a quick wash with any available water, and then place them in the machine’s compartment for cleaning and disinfection. The instruments are cleaned with water heated up to 99 degree Celsius and then disinfected with hot steam.

After that process is completed, users can manually inspect the instruments for impurities such as traces of blood or dirt and remove them. The instruments can then be placed into a sterilisation box which bathes them in steam with a temperature of more than 120 degrees Celsius for 15 minutes. After that, the sterilised instruments are kept in the airtight box until they are needed.

The LifeShift Steriliser can be used to clean unpackaged surgical instruments with flat surfaces and simple cavities, such as scissors, scalpels, needles, needle holders, tweezers and clamps. It also has batteries to store solar energy, so it can be used in areas with fluctuating sunlight.

It works best, however, in areas with an average annual solar radiation of at least 500 kWh per square metre. RSO Shift is developing an alternative version that operates on fuel, for countries with very large fluctuations in solar radiation or rainy seasons.

The cleaning and disinfection stage takes about 45 minutes while the sterilising process lasts about 30 minutes. “We estimate that you can complete up to four cycles each day, and sterilise up to eight or nine sets of instruments each time, so that adds up to about 20 to 30 sets of clean instruments each day,” says Reh.

Power to the people

While the steriliser’s technology has been proven in laboratories, RSO Shift wants to test the device in the field before bringing it to market. To that end, it is working with non-government group Tabitha Global Care Uganda and German foreign aid organisation Dentists for Africa to carry out a two-week trial of the steriliser in Uganda and Kenya by June next year. (2017)

“We will travel to the remote parts of these countries and test the device under real conditions. We want to make sure that the device is easy to operate for doctors and nurses,” says Reh.

He estimates that the steriliser will cost about 10,000 euros on the market, although the exact price will depend on the healthcare project and region. RSO Shift’s target customers are non-profit organisations, non-government groups, associations and foundations that are focused on medical projects in developing and emerging countries.

“It’s important to us that responsibility for all LifeShift solutions is handed over to the people in the affected regions as quickly as possible, to enable self-reliant and sustainable improvement in providing healthcare,” says Reh.

“We also want to work with governments in emerging and developing countries to equip medical care centres and clinics with our energy self-sufficient devices,” he adds. “Our goal is to develop medical products which meet the needs of these countries, and work with partners to get them to the people who need them most.”


RSO Shift is part of the Autodesk Entrepreneur Impact Program, which supports early-stage start-ups and entrepreneurs in the social, cleantech and environmental sectors.

As part of the programme, eligible companies receive world-class software to design, visualise and simulate their ideas and accelerate their time to market through 3D Digital Prototyping. To apply for or learn more, visit www.autodesk.com/entrepreneurimpact and follow @AutodeskImpact.

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