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The blueprint sprint: How a ragtag team of techies hacked the ventilator shortage

As the saying goes, “give a person a fish and you feed them for a day; teach them to fish and you can feed them for a lifetime.”

This lesson rings especially true for LifeMech, a nonprofit volunteer organization based in Portland, Oregon. In response to the deadly shortage of ventilators brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, the company, like many others, set out to design and build enough ventilators to make up for a predicted shortfall at nearby hospitals. Such an effort could have saved hundreds or even thousands of lives.

As the project developed, however, LifeMech had an epiphany. Instead of making a handful of ventilators itself, why not create an open-source, low-cost design that could be used by anyone in the world? Instead of thousands, this new approach could potentially help millions.

But the team had to move quickly.

LifeMech was formed by an impressive group of technologists, engineers, physicians, and others. All were willing to lend their skills for free. LifeMech

“When this COVID epidemic — and then pandemic — started, it was clear that it was going to be really bad,” Saurabh Gupta, one of the chief organizers at LifeMech and a 20-year veteran cardiologist in Portland, told Digital Trends. “Unless we were able to somehow flatten the curve, we were going to be in a very harsh operating environment. At that time, New York was just starting to see its first cases. But we already knew what could happen by looking at [what had already happened in] Italy. When we looked at the projections, even just in Oregon, there was a projected shortfall of 300 ventilators.”

The Oregon Health Authority’s decision to sound the alarm about the lack of ventilators wasn’t simply a matter of securing the funding to buy more. With North America, and the rest of the world, viewing ventilators as a crucial component in the lifesaving critical care for coronavirus patients, the lack of ventilators was viewed as a key shortage on the supply side. There were not enough in existence to serve the quantity of patients expected to need them, so LifeMech, like various other similar operations around the world, decided to build its own.

Designing a ventilator from scratch is tough. Designing it while also on a tight schedule, using components widely available to everyone, is tougher. LifeMech

“We had a local community of volunteers that emerged from personal contacts really,” Lakshman Krishnamurthy told Digital Trends. In civilian life, Krishnamurthy is an Intel Fellow who has been employed at the tech company for the past 23 years. He’s one of the many people who got involved with LifeMech. “It started with local doctors asking for involvement, and the community grew based on our contacts to people in Oregon and the [San Francisco]Bay Area.”

Building an open-source ventilator

Some of the pieces that went into the next-gen ventilator designs. LifeMech

What started as a trickle of engineers offering their time soon grew into a torrent of local volunteers consisting of more than 180 doctors, researchers, electrical engineers, coders, and more. Many of them work for large tech giants, and were given permission to work on the project during normal work hours. (After all, nothing about work feels particularly normal right now.) Their goal was to create a new, freely available open-source ventilator design that could be built using components easily found in the local supply chain. In doing so, they hoped to be able to help out the local community and beyond.

“We wanted this to be open source in the sense that we want to add to the amount of knowledge that exists in the world [about these ventilator systems,]” Gupta said.

The team got to work designing and were soon iterating several times a day using resources like 3D printers usually used for prototyping new products.

“There’s been a tremendous amount of collaboration,” Marcelo Anteparra-Naujock, CEO at branding agency Caffelli and one of the LifeMech project collaborators, told Digital Trends. “We estimate the number of labor hours that have been invested over the past few weeks alone is over 4,000 while creating a functional prototype.”

Engineers on the project put in thousands of hours to perfect their designs. LifeMech

Moving at a breakneck pace, the team supported the creation of three designs: Two built entirely by volunteers and the other supporting a project by the University of Florida. One used hobbyist “Maker” parts, such as a Raspberry Pi and Arduino, along with a component called a stepper, to create closed-loop control of a bag valve mask system with flow and pressure sensors. A second design was built by a volunteer in their garage using parts of a car. The University of Florida effort, meanwhile, involved a solution that could be built using parts easily found at Home Depot.

In all cases, the goal was to build an adapted ventilator system that is possible to assemble using cheap, easily accessible components. The team shares a strong belief in harnessing the power of multidisciplinary collaboration to make the world a better place — and ensuring that game-changing technologies can be leveraged by any community without restriction. At a time when communities are, in some senses, more cut off from one another than ever, this work is an amazing demonstration of how people can lend their skills on a local level to support healthcare initiatives. Along the way, it turned into something more.

Act locally, think globally

COVID-19 is a global crisis — and that means that the implications of LifeMech’s work stretche far beyond Oregon. When the team was told midway into development that Oregon was likely to have enough ventilators to cope with the current pandemic (at least, right now), it decided to redirect its efforts elsewhere.

“Once we realized that the need for ventilators in Oregon and on the West Coast was not going to be that immediate, we shifted our focus,” Gupta said. “We thought, ‘well, now we’ve got a bit more time so we can be even more rigorous with this. So what’s our market?’”

LifeMech shows what can happen when the community comes together to help solve a problem. LifeMech

The team decided that the most important thing it could do would be to hone its adapted ventilator system so that it could be made available,wherever the need arose, particularly in developing (or slightly developed) parts of the world. Gupta points out that India — a country of 1.3 billion people — has just 50,000 ventilators. That’s a figure that makes Oregon’s projected shortfall seem paltry by comparison. “There’s a disconnect there,” he said. “That’s what we decided to pivot toward.”

This is what the team is now building. In doing so, it is working with organizations like Health Bridges International, a Peru- and United States-based non-governmental organization that works to advance health care delivery systems for underserved populations. In doing so, it hopes to help play a more proactive role in shoring up hospitals yet to be overwhelmed. If the ventilators aren’t needed now, the technology will be there for when they are.

LifeMech ventilator progress: bag squeezer and more

“You can’t rush good science,” Wayne Centrone, executive director of Health Bridges International, told Digital Trends. “Science is a process. Science is grounded in iterative investigation and thoughtful development. What makes this project exciting is the potential to build a model of collaboration around challenging technology deficits in resource-constrained environments. This project is about building a framework for working in a holistic, community-focused methodology for creating more health equity. As a physician and public health professional who has dedicated his career to building bridges for underserved populations and communities around the world, it is hard not to be really excited about the LifeMech project.”

Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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