Barbarita Lara (left) and Carolina Amador on a roof deck at MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Mass.
Barbarita Lara (left) and Carolina Amador on a roof deck at MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Mass. PHOTO: Dom Nicastro

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — A solution to help African farmers prevent grain contamination. An alternative to invasive biopsies to better detect liver diseases. A communication tool to help authorities communicate with citizens when internet and cell service is down in times of natural disasters. Three technological innovations, with the goal of helping people live healthier, more prosperous lives — and be safe from harm.

The three young tech innovators behind these solutions won recognition in the MIT Technology Review's 35 Innovators Under 35 program and attended last week's MIT EmTech event. Here are their stories.

Helping the African Hunger Crisis

Headshot of Isaac Sesi
Isaac Sesi

Hunger around the world remains a serious crisis. It is most severe in Africa, where there are 256 million undernourished people, according to a 2019 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, UNICEF, the World Food Programme and the World Health Organization. 

Enter Isaac Sesi, 26. Sesi, who lives in Ghana, told CMSWire some farmers in the region make about $200 per year, nowhere close to enough to afford innovative technologies that can detect moisture levels and make grains last. "My work is in developing affordable technologies for farmers and businesses," Sesi said.

Farmers need to sell their grains immediately to survive, but could be making much more if they were able to store the grains safely and sell at times when demand is higher. "The challenge in storing the grains," Sesi said, "is that they are afraid the grains will grow moldy. One of the reasons is because they don't store them with the right moisture content. They can't determine the right moisture."

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GrainMate's Affordable Alternative

Through multiple years of research learning how to detect these problems, Sesi recognized the price tag for some moisture detectors was way out of reach of the typical farmer in Ghana ($400). He ultimately created GrainMate, which helps measure the moisture levels of crops like maize, rice, wheat, millet and sorghum. The genesis of the product was a collaboration between the United States Agency for International Development and Sesi's school, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology. Sesi also developed a mobile app to support the moisture-reading device, which now sells for $80 under Sesi's company, Sesi Technologies. "Our culture is characterized by very low productivity," Sesi said. "And there are so many losses. But the good thing is that we can identify that a lot of the problems along the value chain can be solved with simple technologies." 

He's not even close to done. His company is working on another technology, FarmSense, that when launched will help farmers increase yield and productivity by providing them with insights to make data-driven decisions about their farms, according to Sesi. He's excited about agricultural technology innovation in Africa as a whole. The African Development Bank is supporting millennials behind agricultural transformation on the continent with $350 million for training and technology.

"What has been happening over the years is that you have a lot of people who are really becoming passionate about technology," Sesi said. "On a policy level, there are lots of governments trying to adopt a lot of new strategies to encourage technology and innovation. You're seeing more tech companies spring up out of Africa. Some of them are being acquired, some of them are attracting multimillion-dollar investments from international venture capitalists." 

Addressing Chronic Issue of Liver Disease 

Headshot of Carolina Amador
Carolina Amador

About 4.5 million people in the US suffer from liver disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). One way clinicians check for liver disease or damage is through a biopsy, a procedure that involves removing small piece of liver tissue. "It's a pretty invasive procedure," said Carolina Amador, 35, a biomedical engineer based out of Colombia. "There is a need for using non-invasive technology like medical imaging to screen these patients."

That's what inspired her to work on a method, Acoustic Radiation Force Induced Creep-Recovery (ARFICR), which measures viscosity and elasticity. In her report with fellow researchers and technicians on the Mayo Clinic website, Amador called it an "ultrasound shear wave elastography (that) is a promising non-invasive, low-cost and clinically viable tool for liver fibrosis staging."

Biopsy alternatives include either ultrasound or magnetic resonance, but the latter is expensive and the former has its problems with consistency. Related technology to Amador's was commercialized many years ago. However, physicians sometimes don't understand the technicalities. "There's got to be some guidelines and protocols of how to use it," she said. "So there was a need for methods that could be standardized. That was my specific contribution to the field." 

Amador's technique focuses on getting precise, consistent information about what's going on at the tissue level. It ultimately leads to a faster diagnosis and a more precise course of treatment than biopsies, according to Amador.

She spends a good chunk of her time coding based on theoretical concepts from physics. Her work also involves understanding how sound waves interact with tissue, modifying hardware and software around the technology and educating clinicians, scientists and patients about the process. The future? Using artificial intelligence (AI) to help technicians and imaging experts acquire data faster. 

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Effective Communication in Times of Disaster

Headshot of Barbarita Lara
Barbarita Lara

Barbarita Lara, 33, recognizes the world is "obsessed with technology." But what happens when we don't have it? And even worse, what happens during an emergency if you don't have internet or cell phone access? This reared its ugly head during an 8.8 massive earthquake in Lara's native Chile in February of 2010 when she was an engineering student. Communication was poor during the disaster, 525 people died; 25 went missing, Lara said.

"We can do better. We need to do something," Lara thought. So she created SiE, which allows smartphone users to receive messages through encrypted high-frequency audio. It works even when internet and phone networks do not. "It's an emergency information system that helps people send messages over the radio, without using/needing the internet," Lara said. SiE uses the frequency of radio waves as a distribution channel. It sends post-catastrophe information using a mobile application on smartphones to send messages encoded from the audio of the radio.

Lara sells the platform through her startup, Emercom, which she founded with the mission to create a "globally interconnected network that brings security and information to people through the innovative use of a proven, low-cost technology."

"We are trying to use technology for community service and to do more," Lara said. "We can do more. That's my mission in the world."