The Helsinki Challenge semifinalist Team ELMO is battling malaria with next-generation mosquito traps. A new vaccine against mosquito-borne disease is also in the works.

Working in Congo, Mikko Aalto, a Finnish surgeon, used to watch huge swarms of mosquitoes trying to enter people’s homes every evening, and in some cases succeeding. Night after night it was the same. Aalto started to conceive of how at least part of the mosquito swarms could be trapped, and how this could reduce the number of malaria cases.

“Mikko contacted us University of Helsinki malaria researchers as well as the fibre and textile researchers at the Tampere University of Technology, and we convened in my office to talk,” explains Professor Seppo Meri, who heads a Helsinki Challenge semifinalist team, Team ELMO.

The researchers unleashed their creativity to come up with a working net trap: they imitated sneakers and tried to add hairs, cylinders, cones, grooves and circles to the traps.

“To be honest, I didn’t initially take the issue seriously, but I was wrong. The question stayed with me, and after some thinking, the idea took off.”

The researchers unleashed their creativity to come up with a working net trap: they imitated sneakers and tried to add hairs, cylinders, cones, grooves and circles to the traps.

“Our Tampere colleagues 3D printed our ideas for traps, and we in Helsinki bred malaria mosquitoes, built a mosquito tunnel and tried to think of ways to entice the mosquitos to fly through it. We tried lights, chemicals and our own hands to attract the mosquitoes. The latter option proved very effective, but as nobody wanted to spend their days with their hands in a mosquito tunnel, we had to think of a better way. And we found one: sweaty socks. We always have those, particularly after our floorball matches.”

THE TECHNICAL SOLUTION WORKS – HOW TO BRING IT TO MARKET?

They finally created a model that worked: a trap net that let the mosquitoes in but not back out. The product was tested both in the laboratory and in Tanzania in field conditions.

Tekes (the Finnish Funding Agency for Innovation) granted funding for the technical development and to find solutions for industrial production. But what kind of a business model could bring this product to market?

“We’re researchers, so we’re not in it to make money. But for a company to want to produce and sell our product, there has to be the potential for profit.”

“We need starting capital to bring our product to market. Where is our kind-hearted benefactor?”

More skills were found from Aalto University, in both the artistic and commercial fields. “We needed people who understood products and marketing, but also architecture. It’s not enough that the product works, it also has to look good and suit the local architecture,” says Meri.

Team ELMO joined the Helsinki Challenge competition to get a boost for commercialising their innovation and, above all, to find investors:

“We need starting capital to bring our product to market. Where is our kind-hearted benefactor?”

ONE VACCINE AGAINST ALL MOSQUITO-BORNE DISEASE?

Malaria is just one disease spread by mosquitoes – another is the much-discussed zika virus. However, Team ELMO has valid reasons for primarily addressing malaria:

“The trap net mainly catches mosquitoes that fly and suck blood at night, as they are the ones trying to get into houses after dark. The mosquitoes that spread zika, dengue and the West Nile virus are diurnal, so the concept isn’t as effective for them,” Meri explains.

The idea is that the vaccine would make human blood toxic to the mosquitoes, making the blood-sucking insects die rapidly.

However, the second part of Team ELMO’s mission is a new vaccine that would combat all disease-bearing mosquitoes. The idea is that the vaccine would make human blood toxic to the mosquitoes, making the blood-sucking insects die rapidly.

“Our Challenge project focuses mainly on the mosquito net, which is ready to be marketed. The vaccine study is primarily a scientific project for my research work, and that is far from becoming a finished product,” Meri says.

“Our idea shows promise and has proven effective in tests on mice. There is certainly a demand for such a vaccine.”