Two groups of entrepreneurs at UCLA are using smartphones to bring key technological advancements to the developing world.

Westwood’s Holomic, housed across the street from the university, has licensed technology from the school to create rapid diagnostic readers that plug into smartphones. These readers can analyze chemically treated strips that test for a variety of medical conditions such as malaria, HIV or heart problems, to name a few.

The technology, invented by Holomic co-founder and UCLA engineering professor Aydogan Ozcan, has been deployed in South Africa and other countries where remote diagnostic testing could become a valuable tool for doctors and other medical professionals treating patients in isolated towns and villages. The readings can also be stored on a secured cloud server and archived in an online database.

“We are working with a number of NGOs participating or conducting trials in various parts of the world,” said Holomic co-founder and Chief Executive Neven Karlovac.

The rapid diagnostic readers have also been commercialized and sold to medical testing-kit manufacturers, though additional diagnostic uses have yet to hit the market.

“We are still in the development phase and we are close to profitability,” Karlovac explained.

The company is funded by co-founder and Chairman Gilbert Hakim, who also founded Clearwater, Fla., firm SSC Soft Computer, a developer of software for laboratories.

Karlovac said Holomic is also waiting for Food and Drug Administration approval on several other applications for its readers, including drug tests. Potential customers include not only health care providers but also law enforcement and private companies.

“The abuse of legal drugs is a significant and growing problem,” Karlovac said, adding that Holomic hopes to make the readers available to the general public in a few years.

Dirt Power

Founded by fourth-year UCLA engineering student Elaine Truong, ReVolt is building a dirt battery that harnesses energy from the sun and dirt to charge devices such as cellphones and lamps for consumers in developing nations where access to electricity is limited.

Truong was one of 50 young entrepreneurs from around the world chosen by the San Francisco non-profit group Kairos Society to attend it global summit last month in Laguna Niguel. The group received invitations based on their innovative efforts in trying to solve real-world problems. Over the course of the three-day event, entrepreneurs met with global investors and industry mentors as well as corporate leaders from companies such as Sprint Corp., Cisco Systems Inc. and General Electric Corp.

Truong got the idea for the product after traveling to rural Kenya in 2011 and 2013 with a student group at UC Irvine called Engineers Without Borders. She transferred to UCLA last year.

“They actually use their cellphones quite often … to negotiate business deals or even receive an education,” Truong said of the Kenyans she met. “But they really didn’t have an efficient way of charging them.”

She connected with a group of engineering students at Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology that had been developing a battery powered only by dirt, but that group eventually gave up after failing to produce the necessary voltage.

ReVolt’s innovation involves combining the electricity produced by bacteria and microbes in the dirt with a solar-powered fuel cell. ReVolt plans to utilize technology patented by co-founder Gongming Wang, a postdoctoral chemistry student at UCLA.

Truong said ReVolt has yet to file incorporation papers but is registered as a non-profit.

She and her team have been able to produce the amount of voltage required to charge a smartphone, but it’s still very expensive.

“It’s not very commercially viable yet,” Truong said. “Cost is definitely a large factor. “It’s about figuring out a strategic and clever way to scale our production.”

ReVolt hopes to sell the battery for $15 to people in developing nations. But Truong also sees plenty of market potential in the United States and other industrialized countries, particularly among camping consumers.

“If there’s an emergency, people might not have access to electricity,” Truong explained.


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Staff reporter Omar Shamout can be reached at or (323) 549-5225, ext. 263.

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