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Cool as you like

The portable refrigerator that Blackfrog Technologies has crafted aids in the last-mile delivery of vaccines and other medical material

Mayur Shetty, chief executive of the Manipal-based startup Blackfrog Technologies, recalls with relish the chance encounter with Social Alpha that changed his career.

“In 2018 we became a Social Alpha partner and it’s been an end-to-end journey since then,” he says. “They have been mentor, incubator, investor and, now, also a customer. Social Alpha has been a part of all aspects of our growth. At the time our association began, we really had no other option.”

Blackfrog has created medical-grade cooling units that can be used to carry vaccines, blood, tissue samples, serum and other biological fluids. The company’s battery-operated ‘portable refrigerator’ aids in last-mile delivery and can be transported easily.

Called Emvolio (from the Greek word for vaccine), the refrigerator is small enough so that in places with poor infrastructure — like a health centre in a remote village  — it can be hauled by a bike rider on his or her back.

Mr Shetty initially approached Social Alpha to invest in Blackfrog, but the relationship took a different turn. “We spent a year working with them,” he says. “As a young company, we had trouble with our balance sheet, cash-flow management etc. We needed a lot of handholding and Social Alpha did that for us.”

A health worker carries the Emvolio refrigerator containing Covid vaccines to a primary health centre in Diyungmukh in the Dima Hasao district of Assam

Later, the mentor turned investor as well and now Social Alpha’s other partners, like the Collectives for Integrated Livelihood Initiatives — an associate organisation of the Tata Trusts — and Support Jharkhand, have purchased the refrigerators.

Emvolio caught the public eye in 2020 when it was used to carry specimens for Covid testing in Karnataka. Its USP is temperature control, which means the temperature can be set to precision, and there is no danger of under-cooling or over-cooling, which protects the molecular integrity of the substance being transported.

Charged up

Emvolio’s two-litre chamber can carry up to 50 vials and runs for over 12 hours at a time on a single battery charge (some versions of the carrier are solar compatible). The device allows users to track the progress of delivery in real time through geo-mapping.

Blackfrog’s cooling units can be used during routine immunisation drives as well, which give them relevance beyond Covid. “Our focus is not just on Covid-related vaccines but all vaccines,” says Mr Shetty. The last-mile reach of maternal and child vaccines, for instance, has always been a problem and we wanted to solve that.”

Emvolio ensures that such vaccines reach the right recipients in the right conditions and it eliminates wastage. (Ordinarily, during a vaccination drive in a distant place, the carrier is loaded with extra doses. If there are any doses left over at the end of the day, they are thrown away since bringing them back would inevitably mean that they get spoilt.)

Emvolio, apart from being a carrier, can also operate as a stand-alone refrigerator once it is plugged into a power source. So any additional doses stay protected even over long periods.

The portable refrigerator idea came to the Blackfrog team years ago during a conversation with a former professor of Mr Shetty’s. “His daughter was due for her polio drops and the healthcare worker who came to immunise her carried the drops in a thermos with ice cubes in it,” says Mr Shetty. “By the time she arrived, the ice had long melted and there was just water in the flask. My professor was shocked. That got us talking about why we still resort to these crude forms of cold-chain management.”

Given that vaccine purchase and delivery is a centralised process, Blackfrog depends entirely on government procurement of its Emvolio units. “It’s not like an ultrasound machine that you can sell to a private hospital,” says Mr Shetty. “There’s bound to be little interest from the private sector for our product.” Depending on the variant — there are three — an Emvolio could cost anywhere between 54,000 to 130,000.

A doctor at a health centre in Bihar administers a Covid vaccine; the Emvolio refrigerator here is used for carrying amd storing these and other vaccines
A doctor at a health centre in Bihar administers a Covid vaccine; the Emvolio refrigerator here is used for carrying amd storing these and other vaccines

The partnership has provided both validation for, and access to, customers for Blackfrog. The startup is working closely with UNAIDS and arms of the World Health Organization to deploy Emvolio carriers outside India (this includes a pilot project in Kenya).

Mr Shetty is not one to understate the role that Social Alpha has played in giving Blackfrog a leg up. “They’ve been a knowledge partner. They trusted our product even when we were just starting out, and they’ve have been advocating for us ever since. It’s holistic support.”

Images courtesy: Blackfrog Technologies