Brains4corona: fighting the corona crisis by innovation

14 April 2020 • 5 min reading time

The impact on our society and the global economy caused by the corona crisis is huge. To help combat the effects of the corona virus TNO is deploying its innovative power. The special ‘Brains4corona team’ is coordinating various projects that were conceived and launched over the past few weeks, thanks to the expertise, creativity and ingenuity of our experts.

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The idea for Brains4corona came from Peter Werkhoven, a member of the Executive Board of TNO. ‘These are difficult times,’ he says. ‘We need innovative power to combat the corona crisis, and this is exactly what TNO specialises in. So, as befits our motto, ‘Innovation for Life,’ we asked TNO staff to deploy their brains to think of ways of combatting the corona crisis.’

Seventy-nine project proposals in two weeks

‘We asked all our people at TNO to rack their brains and submit project proposals,’ explains Jaap Lombaers, project leader of Brains4corona. ‘The teams worked day and night, which ultimately resulted in 79 proposals, which came from every layer of the organisation, submitted by teams varying in size from one to five TNO staff. Each and every one of the proposals suggests a creative, concrete solution to an urgent shortage and or a requirement for tackling this crisis. The Brains4corona team finally selected 21 fantastic proposals.’

Urgent projects

The selected projects all satisfy a number of essential conditions: They must generate a concrete application within eight weeks. In addition, the initiatives must provide a solution to an urgent need or requirement currently facing the outside world. ‘The plans have all passed the first round of checks; we know that the parties concerned are in real need of a solution along these lines,’ Lombaers says. ‘Furthermore,’ he emphasises, we are checking that our projects will not interrupt or interfere with other parties’ objectives. We want to use our unique expertise to work on gaps that other parties cannot address.’

From masks to platforms for controlling supplies

‘I’ve always known that the staff at TNO are highly inventive and creative spirits, but some of their ideas have amazed me,’ Lombaers says. ‘It’s great to see the combination of different areas of expertise. This illustrates more than ever the unique power of TNO.’

Here are a few examples of the proposals that have been selected:

  • Recycling masks: TNO already has a test that can be used to estimate the degree to which packaging material keeps medical instruments sterile. This test is now being used on masks, to see whether a sterilisation technique is damaging the material.
  • Expert panel for hospitals and residential care homes: A help desk with experts has been set up to answer questions about climate and air conditioning systems and contamination problems from hospitals and other healthcare institutions.
  • International COVID-19 passport: TNO is actively involved in a world-wide initiative to develop a so-called COVID-19 passport. The passport is a digital, secure (in terms of privacy) way for people to prove their COVID-19 status (via a secure ‘wallet’ on their smartphone) and gain safe access to physical locations. It is designed to help with a controlled restart of social interaction after the crisis.
  • Diagnostic tools for people in vital healthcare jobs: We do not have the capacity to test everyone. So how do we protect people who provide homecare for people or work in residential care homes? They cannot observe ‘social distancing’, but they do work with the most vulnerable groups of the population. A simplified analysis and less invasive samples can be used to check whether someone has been infected. This test is more sensitive to errors than the test used in hospitals, but it will at least provide healthcare workers working outside hospitals with a credible worthwhile alternative.
  • Phishing detection during the corona crisis: Sadly, the corona crisis is providing fraudsters with the opportunity to approach people with scams citing corona. How can you minimise the opportunities for cyber criminals to take advantage? TNO is using its knowledge and experience to help security software providers with tools for automatically recognising phishing emails, for instance.
  • Reducing infection risks in public spaces: How can we set up, adjust and maintain the ventilation and climate control in buildings to minimise the risk of infection? TNO is working with various partners to put the knowledge and experience it has acquired in places such as Wuhan and Singapore into practice, to devise guidelines that will limit the transfer of the virus.
  • Logistics and big data: Another project uses big data to focus on constructing models to help suppliers of essential goods (such as medical supplies, drugs, PPE, etc.) to predict and monitor demand, so that they can control the distribution.
  • Pop-Up, Pick-Up and Home Delivery (PUPPY): The number of people going to shops can be structurally reduced using a logistic concept known as ‘pop-up, pick-up and home delivery’. Consumers place their orders with various local retailers via a portal. These small retailers prepare the orders and a logistic party picks them up and delivers them to a communal local collection point. This reduces the risk of infection, supports local businesses and helps vulnerable people and healthcare workers.

So what’s next?

The 21 selected projects were launched immediately. ‘It’s exciting to see how far each of the projects will get in eight weeks,’ Lombaers says.  ‘After all, it is innovation. But we are doing everything within our power to ensure that as many of the projects as possible are successfully implemented.’

Other parties find their way to TNO

As well as the Brains4corona projects that TNO has itself launched, TNO is also being approached with requests and questions from other parties, including government bodies, businesses and healthcare institutions. ‘The Brains4corona team makes sure that questions are directed to the right experts within TNO and that questions are combined wherever possible, to avoid repeating work,’ Lombaers says. ‘We interact with ministries, top sectors and national crisis teams. After all, it is vital that we all join forces in this respect. For example, we provide input to the Netherlands Operational Corona Team (LOT-C), the support service centre for the security regions during the corona crisis. This is a unique collaboration involving public services such as the police, the fire service, the Ministry of Defence and the Institute for Safety (IFV).’

Help us to stay innovative

We are always on the look-out for external parties who are keen to work with us. No less so now, during the corona crisis. If you have specific expertise that you think may be useful, you are keen to help us to be innovative or you need our help and support, please contact us via [email protected].

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