A personal problem led to a NWU professor developing an award-winning COVID-19 screening app

Professor Leenta Grobler

Professor Leenta Grobler (left) says she has always questioned everything and looked for problems to solve, a trait that led her to engineering, a field in which she is now an Associate Professor at North-West University (NWU) in Potchefstroom.

She has worked with students to develop products for years. However, the activities of the faculty and the university's technological transfer office were disconnected. Therefore the products never made it to market in any significant way – not until 2011, when she became a mother of a child who overcame a developmental delay.

This meant a lot of time in speech and occupational therapy sessions. It was difficult to access experienced allied health professionals in a semi-rural city, removed from South Africa's major cities. She realised it must be even more so for the people residing in rural areas, who did not have access to someone to help them in the way that she fortunately had, and so her motivation and conviction to change the lives of children changed forever. Along with a colleague and a few students, she started implementing digital health solutions to problems in developing countries, which transformed her life and career.

Professor Grobler presented this account at the recent virtual Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) Lekgotla. She was speaking on IoT, that is, The Internet of Things for Health: 4IR solutions from the Ranks of an Engineering Faculty, which formed part of the discussion on The University as Catalyst for Entrepreneurial Change.

She said her background in telecommunications, experience in product development, coupled with her newfound interest in the healthcare industry, made digital health technology a natural fit for her. Furthermore, the more she read, the more she realised how big a game changer this could be in South Africa.

IoT can help healthcare

When people think of IoT, the system of internet-connected objects able to collect and transfer data over a wireless network, they think of it in terms of complicated solutions and applications. But IoT can also be used in ''small, but significant products that are easy to use and easy to understand, and make a huge difference in the world,'' she said. In this way, IoT can be used for remote healthcare. And the data it generates can help support healthcare decisions.

She said she found the British and American technology for allied healthcare professionals excellent but inaccessible in terms of price and its applicability in the local setting. That motivated Professor Grobler to start working on South African solutions.

The beginning of med-E-hive

Immersing herself in the world of allied healthcare professionals, and making them part of her team, they started coming up with a number of innovative products. So med-E-hive was born, a technology incubator that enables data-driven screening, diagnostics, rehabilitation and therapy in a multidisciplinary way.

Pre-COVID, one of their inventions reproduced a clinic setting where they were able to measure a baby's head circumference, weight and length; and mid upper-arm circumference for older children. Once this data is recorded, they can automatically analyse and alert people if they need to act on these measurements. So dieticians can know if a baby is severely malnourished, long before the baby needs to be admitted to hospital.

Similarly, instead of people having to travel long distances to access a physical therapist, they can use technology that can administer the therapy, and also keep a record of how often the patient does the exercises, and if they are doing them correctly.

COVID-19 provided even more opportunities for digital healthcare

Professor Grobler and her team developed their biggest success story of the pandemic, the health screening mobile app TjopTjop. It had its first paying client 15 days after they thought of it. What started as a COVID-19 screening solution for one school is now being used at 200 schools and a number of corporates. And it is being spun out at NWU as a fully-fledged company.

TjopTjop mobile device
The gradual return to institutions of higher learning requires daily screening of people entering learning and workplaces. Unless carefully managed, this could cause long queues as people entering premises wait to be screened. Professor Grobler's TjopTjop was invented as a solution equipping individuals at the entry point of institutions. It involves a cell phone which serves as a recording station.

Risk Assisment
Whole System
It collects a) identification information from the person entering the premises; b) temperature information directly from a commercial digital thermometer and c) answers a risk assessment questionnaire via a simple user interface. Ultimately the information is transferred to a bigger system for strategic management by user organisations including those in healthcare.

TjopTjop is a direct Afrikaans translation of the English colloquial expression "chop chop", and refers to the app saving time and congestion at screening stations such as schools. It is a mobile app that collects and stores health screening information, which the relevant people can access. It was a winner in the 2020 United Nations Innovation and Investment Forum from a total of 168 submissions.

"People still don't realise the value of the screening information we're all having to give at stores and restaurants. If we had all that data digitally, we would have a much better idea of what's going on within South Africa and how to react to a pandemic, and much faster too," said Professor Grobler.

The four good things that came out of COVID-19 in South Africa

In terms of healthcare innovation and IoT applications, Professor Grobler said South Africa has benefited from:

  • the community spirit and collaboration between universities, and companies collaborating with universities;
  • the focus on home-grown solutions – a country should be able to react and take responsibility for its own technological solutions;
  • legislative changes in terms of removals of restrictions that enable remote healthcare; and
  • improved network infrastructure that enabled virtual learning and work, and now also helps in harnessing remote health care.

Many universities help innovators in their immediate communities, too

NWU and other universities have community projects where they help innovators with no affiliation to the university to develop their ideas and provide some seed funding too. This should be developed even more, she said.

No contribution is insignificant

"If you have an idea and you think you are too small to make a difference, or too insignificant, just remember your last encounter with a mosquito and trying to sleep while one of them is around," said Professor Grobler.

The thought leadership that Professor Grobler shared at the 4th annual EDHE Lekgotla was heard by no fewer than 1221 delegates from around the world. This conference attendees comprised studentpreneurs from South Africa's 26 public universities, academics and senior leaders from the sector, including policymakers as well as delegates from Africa, Ghana and Nigeria, in Africa, and also from parts of Europe and the United States.

The EDHE programme, that is driving entrepreneurship development at public universities, is a flagship programme of Universities South Africa that is being funded, in the main, from the Department of Higher Education and Training's University Capacity Development Programme.


The author, Gillian Anstey, is an independent writer commissioned by Universities South Africa

Powered by NewsSite