Professor Rabbani: A physicist and his patent-free medical inventions for the Global South

April 5, 2022

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Back in the 1980s when Professor Siddique-e-Rabbani began to invent inexpensive alternatives to highly expensive medical equipment for poor countries like Bangladesh, the usage of the word ‘startup’ to describe a ‘budding company’ had just been started by the Forbes magazine.

In the 90s when his company Bi-Beat was formed, this physicist had every opportunity to emerge as the pioneer in Bangladesh’s startup culture. Even Grameenphone had not started its journey when Bi-Beat was formed with a promise to develop low-cost medical equipment. 

Professor Rabbani – highly revered today for the humane side of his inventive life but barely recognised in the country’s emerging entrepreneurial culture or startup ecosystem – could have become a tycoon with business magazines counting his net worth, given the problems his inventions have been solving.

But he did not become the person he could easily grow into, only if he wanted to make money.

He instead chose a life where business and making money are not a priority over unconditional service to human welfare. He built Bi-Beat to speed up invention, production and delivery of highly essential medical kits, but makes no profit from it.

He invents lifesaving technologies and has opened up patents for all. And to ensure that it remains a non-profit, he made Bi-Beat a non-share holding company, which means ‘no one takes the profit and everyone works for a greater goal’.

So what drives Professor Rabbani? He shares a story from his childhood.

Infographic: TBS

“Everyone in my family used to see off my elder brother at the railway station when he departed for Dhaka University. I was just a little kid back then. My brother once observed ‘while everyone waves me goodbye, Rabbani looks at the train wheel instead’. I have had a knack for technology and new things since my childhood.”

“I had a drive from inside, call it spirituality or a religious drive, that I have one life, so I have to be of help to the people,” Professor Rabbani said. “And the way we studied and taught Physics in our universities, whatever we innovate, actually remains in the laboratory. So I always wanted our physics studies to help people in real life.” 

A lifelong believer in creation and innovation, Professor Rabbani – since beginning his career as a faculty at Dhaka University’s physics department in the early 80s – has collaborated with various local and foreign stakeholders, including Sheffield University and British Council, to serve common people through low-cost technological innovations.

Photo: Noor-a-Alam

For example, he developed a Computerised EMG Evoke Potential Machine that was as expensive as Tk20 lakh back in the 1980s and sold it for Tk3.5 lakh, which he continues to do even today.

Everything he invented was meant to reduce the hefty expenses in treatment that poorer people could not avail. 

And ever since Bi-Beat’s inception in 1996, he has institutionalised his efforts. A group of young physicists, mostly his students, have been involved in developing low-cost medical products such as Muscle & Nerve Stimulator, Phonocardiograph, Negative Pressure Isolation Canopy, Electro-Health, etc. under the mentorship of Rabbani.

A curious kid, a teacher, an innovator

Rabbani lost his father during his childhood, in the early 60s.

One day, one of his elder cousins, witnessing his drive to make new things, advised him to take electronics seriously.

It was 1962. Rabbani was a student of class eight.

“After reading a few electronics books that were available in Faridpur, I decided to make a radio. But you couldn’t find radio parts in Faridpur. The next year I participated in a science fair in Dhaka and bought the necessary parts. My work began as soon as I got back home. When I was done after working all night, the radio was playing the national anthem.” 

“The guy who stood first in the science fair made a radio with the foreign kits he bought. But I wanted to build everything from scratch and on my own. And this has been my characteristic ever since,” Rabbani said.

In the late 60s, when he was studying in the physics department at the University of Dhaka, his engagement with inventing, creating and science fairs increased. In 1967, he shared first prize with his friend at the East Pakistan science fair for making a remote-controlled boat. In 1970, he again won first prize in an all Pakistan science fair for making a walking robot. The robot was built with tin, and it was controlled by radio.

Because of these science projects, however, he did badly in his first-year exam. But he eventually recovered and stood first in the final honour’s exam.

Photo: Noor-a-Alam

In 1971 he received a scholarship from Islamabad University, renamed Quaid-i-Azam University at present, for a master’s degree. As the war began, Rabbani would find himself stuck in Pakistan with many other Bangalis and would eventually be repatriated back to the country in 1973. In the meantime, although he would lose his scholarship during an early attempt to return to Bangladesh right after the war, he eventually managed to complete his masters with financial support from relatives and Red Cross.

Rabbani’s entrepreneurial journey actually began when he became a teacher at the Residential School.

“I wanted to join Dhaka University when I returned but learned that my batch mates still hadn’t completed their master’s degree. So I joined the Residential School instead in 1974,” Rabbani said.

Photo: Noor-a-Alam

“I found that radio batteries back then were so expensive that people, including my colleagues, struggled to afford them. So I made power adaptors to replace batteries on my own and sold them to the teachers. I sold a few dozen of these units,” Rabbani narrated. However, his stay at the Residential School was short-lived because he received a commonwealth scholarship for PhD in microelectronics in England.

“Going to England was a good step for me because it was there that I understood that science is not all about rocketry and space. Science is very close to me. That science is to enhance people’s quality of life… that I could build something that I needed, like the battery replacement units at the Residential School for example.

This culture has been in the UK for hundreds of years. That was what led them to the industrial revolution. It was not about one single person doing something fabulous. There should be a network, and a supportive environment,” Rabbani said.

“I always thought about why the standard of living in our country is poor whereas their (western countries) living standard is high. This was when I realised that they were using technology but we are not. To improve living standards, technology is essential. Now, who will build technology for our people? Scientists from England and America won’t do it, so we will have to do it,” Rabbani said.

As he studied microelectronics,  a degree in this field of study had huge demand in the West with promises of extraordinary pay and an opulent lifestyle. But Rabbani was determined to come back to Bangladesh.

“I came back to Bangladesh and set a life here although I knew I didn’t have a job here, and life was uncertain. I knew that if I stayed there (England) even for a year, I would stay there permanently. But I had to pay back the debts to this land and its people.”

A life of patent-free inventions for the Global South

Back in Bangladesh, Rabbani joined Dhaka University’s physics department as a faculty member.

“While teaching physics, I realised the way we study Physics is not serving the people. But it should serve the people.”

His first serious opportunity to serve people came through his colleague Professor Shamsul Islam’s friend Dr Abdus Satter Syed.

Dr Syed’s father had a bone fracture in his leg. He was also an inventive person like Professor Rabbani.

After he watched a BBC documentary about Pulsed Electromagnetic Field therapy that heals people with bone fractures, Dr Syed contacted the inventors, but they asked for $2,000 for renting the machine. It was too much for them at the time. They also bought a machine from abroad for Tk55,000 to heal Dr Syed’s father. But it lasted only two days.

So Dr Syed and Professor Islam started a mission to develop a machine. They called Professor Rabbani to build it.

Professor Rabbani was successful in building an inexpensive alternative pulsed electromagnetic field machine. “It cost Tk300 to build, and treated 16 patients for two years, whereas the US machine charged $2,000 as rent and the Tk55,000 foreign machine survived two days.”

Photo: Noor-a-Alam

Throughout the next ten years, along with teaching physics at the University of Dhaka, he collaborated with Sheffield University, British Council and many other stakeholders in his journey to invent a myriad of low-cost medical equipment that he religiously kept patent-free so it serves the global south.

For example, take his invention – Computerised EMG Evoke Potential Machine – for nerve conduction measurement. A machine of that calibre back then would cost around Tk20 lakh.

Doctors found the machine that Professor Rabbani developed useful. The machine would measure nerve conduction with EMG. Even distinguished neurosurgeon Professor Rashid Uddin Ahmed used to send his patients to Professor Rabbani.

“I started to take paid visits from the patients back then.” 

He worked with other neurosurgeons and his machine was used in hospitals like BIRDEM. 

A few years down the line, he endeavoured to institutionalise his inventions and creations.  

“To take our research to the people, in 1996, we formed Bangladesh Institute for Biomedical Engineering and Appropriate Technology (Bi-Beat). We invented many machines at the Bi-Beat; the machine to cure sweaty hands and feet for example. It has been tested at PG hospital and now we have good results,” Professor Rabbani said.

If you visit the company website, you will find more than a dozen medical equipment inventions displayed with specifications that they are selling at a lower price, such as Computerised ECG, Data Acquisition System, Digital Microscope, Dynamic Pedograph, Electro-Health, Instrumentation Amplifier, Intra-Operative Neuromonitor, Light Plethysmograph, etc.

All these are sold for much less than their western counterparts, and all these inventions of Professor Rabbani are patent-free for the greater good of the poor countries.

Bi-Beat, registered as a non-share holding company, does not make much profit as of now. Along with office maintenance, and employee salaries, they have to depend on funding from Sweden as of today. He believes that by 2022, Bi-Beat will stand on its feet and they will not require funding from Sweden anymore.

But for Rabbani, the main struggle is to establish a culture in Bangladesh that favours budding local tech entrepreneurs in the form of tax breaks and policy interventions for the companies that build wonders from scratch.

It is about creating a culture, an environment that the west has had for hundreds of years. It is about freeing the global south from the shackles of patents that the global north nourishes as a trump card, the professor said.

 “After Bi-Beat hits break-even, we will spend the spared money on inventions and on our other efforts like telemedicine programs. We will spend money on enhancing research and innovations for our students,” said Professor Rabbani, the dreamer, the visionary.

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