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UCT Spin-Out Companies

Cell - Life

Cell-Life (www.cell-life.org) is a pioneering initiative that develops ICT (Information Communication Technology)-based solutions to support the management and monitoring of HIV related activities in the areas of prevention, VCT (voluntary counselling and testing) and treatment. The core focus over recent years has been on Antiretroviral Treatment (ART) with additional custom solutions developed in other arenas to meet specific customer requirements.

In 1999 UCT's Dr Ulrike Rivett realised that infrastructural limitations presented a major challenge to the successful roll-out of South Africa's ART programme, coupled with the need for 95% compliance by individuals to the ART to prevent the virus from mutating and drug-resistant strains developing. An innovative pill-box combined with a mechanism for reminding patients to take their medication was too expensive and patients had to be encouraged to take personal responsibility for their own lifelong treatment. Professor Jon Tapson, Department of Electrical Engineering, suggested using existing technology to cut costs and cellphones provided the perfect solution, especially with their unequalled reach (in terms of technology) into the target demographic.

Cell-Life came into being as a research project, bringing together technology experts in IT, health and engineering. By merging cellphone technology with the Internet and database systems, a medical management system was developed, providing a virtual infrastructure to support patients on ART.

The project was first implemented in Gugulethu in 2001 and therapeutic counsellors and home-based carers were provided with cellphones with a simple menu loaded onto the SIM cards. This enabled the carers to collect the information on a patient's status during home visits, and to upload this via SMS to a central database that could be accessed by a patient's doctor or nurse. An alert function was developed to allow the home-based carer to alert the doctor or nurse on duty, via SMS and beeper, when an emergency arose. Adherence to the treatment regimen could be monitored by home-based carers making random visits to patients and counting their pills, comparing these against clinic records.

Since research funding could not cover large-scale implementation, the team sought a major funder. At the time, Vodacom was the only mobile provider capable of supporting the essential high-security software, developed for Cell-Life with the assistance of Fundamo (a company working with mobile solutions, mainly for cellphone banking). Vodacom and the Vodacom Foundation received the concept very positively and have contributed much more than funding. Vodacom helped the team to understand business strategy and marketing plans. Strong personal relationships were developed with people in the organisation, and Vodacom's interest resulted in Cell-Life partnering with them on similar projects. For example, when it became apparent that there was a need for a reverse billing system (to enable carers to send information without having money loaded on their phones), Cell-Life worked with Vodacom to develop one. In this way, a major hurdle was overcome, and Cell-Life has subsequently benefited from a much wider roll-out of this functionality.

A large number of postgraduate students from the Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment, have not only qualified through their involvement in this project but have stayed on to work for Cell-Life after graduating. Students (mainly engineering and IT students) are also encouraged to undertake paid vacation work at Cell-Life. Relevant theses are listed on the website[link outdated]

UCT and Cell-Life have entered into a licensing agreement, whereby Cell-Life has a royalty free licence to use the technologies developed at UCT for non-commercial purposes, evidence of UCT's commitment to enabling innovation for societal benefit to meet the needs of South Africans, rather than solely for commercial gain. RC&I's Contracts Managers have also supported Cell-Life in contract negotiations and the drafting of contracts with third parties.

The licence also allows Cell-Life free access to appropriate future technologies developed at UCT which will augment and extend its business and ensure that it embraces and keeps pace with changing technology. The approach of creating a pipeline of technologies within the UCT environment that can feed into and grow spin-offs, developing them beyond the bounds of their initial start-up IP, is one that RCIPS will be nurturing in other areas too, e.g. building a pipeline of algal technologies for the Cape Carotene start-up, as it is key to their ongoing success and focuses innovation within UCT.

In 2004 a Section 21 company was formed, which inter alia, allows access to other sources of funding such as the Elton John Foundation and others. Although originally incubated on the UCT Campus, the company has moved to facilities on the CPUT campus (collaboration partners).

During its start-up phase, UCT permitted Dr Rivett to fulfil the role of MD for Cell-Life, whilst remaining on the university's payroll. As the company developed and the time commitment increased, she moved into a non-executive role on the board and a MD was appointed by the company, which now has a full-time staff component of twelve and operates in seven provinces. This staged approach and transition greatly assisted the start-up phase of the company.

Core systems and technologies include:

Cell-Life has received a number of accolades:

  • Electronic Medical Patient Record (EMPR): This is the central database that houses the electronic medical records of the patient.

  • Clinic Information System for ART (CISART): Medical and administration staff need to gain access to the CEMR. The interface that makes this possible is CISART. At present this interface is based upon a secure web-based client-server interaction.

  • Patient Aftercare

  • Intelligent Dispensing of Anti-Retroviral Treatment (iDART): iDART is a simple pharmacy drug management tool that allows for the ease of dispensing triple therapy ARVs on a large scale with integrated reporting capabilities such as patient collection times and drug stock levels.

  • Remote Booking for Voluntary Counselling and Testing (RBVCT): The RBTVCT is a system that allows people to remotely and anonymously book for VCT sessions over the Internet or through their cellphones. Currently being used by UCT staff in a trial and to be extended on a potential national scale to support students in tertiary education institutions and large corporate organisations attempting to offer VCT to high volumes of staff.

  • Laboratory Application Module (LAM)

  • GIS (Geographical Information System) Module: The RBTVCT is a system that allows people to remotely and anonymously book for VCT sessions over the Internet or through their cellphones. Currently being used by UCT staff in a trial and to be extended on a potential national scale to support students in tertiary education institutions and large corporate organisations attempting to offer VCT to high volumes of staff.

  • Monitoring and Evaluation Reporting

    • 2004 winner in the Handheld Competition organised by Bridges.org for demonstrated innovative strategies showing how the power of handheld computing devices can be harnessed in the areas of health (HIV/AIDS), education and agriculture.

    • 2005 and again in 2006 Cell-Life was recognised as the Most Noteworthy Achiever in the Emerging Enterprise section of the TT100 Awards Programme (TechnologyTop100).

    • 2006, Impulelo conferred an Innovation Award on Cell-Life in 2006.