The COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage across the world. At press time, more than 450,000 people have been infected by the novel coronavirus with approximately 20,500 deaths. The pandemic has also highlighted extreme shortages of medical supplies, including personal protective equipment for healthcare workers and ventilators for COVID-19 patients.
The lack of ventilators is most critical for patients hit hardest by COVID-19 – typically people 60-plus years of age and anyone with underlying medical conditions. These patients often suffer severe respiratory problems. A ventilator, a mechanical breathing machine, is a lifesaving tool when a patient’s lungs fill with fluid, which makes it difficult for the lungs to oxygenate blood.
New York is the epicenter of the crisis in the US. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has been most vocal about the lack of ventilators. He said New York needs at least 30,000 ventilators to handle the peak of the epidemic, which is predicted to hit the state in about two weeks. At press time, New York secured 7,000 additional ventilators, but only 400 of those came from the federal government.
To combat this shortage, companies are partnering to ramp up production of ventilators. Yesterday, GE Healthcare and Ford Motor Company announced plans to work together. MIT researchers hope to soon publish open-source designs for a low-cost respirator. And now two Boston-based robotics startups at MassRobotics have paused their work to help fill the shortage.
The Ventilator Project
Alex Frost, Founder of FloraBot, and Tyler Mantel, Founder of Watertower Robotics, started The Ventilator Project, a non-profit looking to develop a low-cost ventilator specifically for COVID-19 patients. One ventilator costs about $40,000, according to estimates. Mantel told The Robot Report his team is rapidly prototyping a ventilator that will cost between $1,000-$2,000.
“The best analogy I can come up with is cars,” Mantel said. “Rolls-Royce has some amazing cars. You feel like you’re on a cloud when you drive one because you never feel the road. But you can also get a car for far less money that gets you to where you need to go. The ventilators currently on the market are designed for any type of patient. We’re building a ventilator specifically for COVID-19 patients. Think of it as a stripped down, bare bones version of what major companies produce.”
Mantel, understandably, didn’t share much about the design of the ventilator. But he said The Ventilator Project is consulting with a group of doctors on the ventilator design. Mantel said the ventilator will be submitted to the Food and Drug Administration under the Emergency Approval Process. If and when approved, The Ventilator Project hopes to get production up and running in 30 days and produce 1,000 ventilators within the first month.
“After that, we’ll ramp up production to help fill the anticipated shortage of 600,000 ventilators worldwide. We’re working on contracts with major manufacturers in the medical device space to use their under-utilized facilities to pump out ventilators.”
Community comes together
The Ventilator Project was officially formed on March 20. Mantel said by this Friday the company will have 100-plus volunteers on the team. “Alex came to me and said [the ventilator shortage] is a problem we need to solve,” Mantel said. “We talked for a few minutes then dropped everything and dove in. We’re in Boston – we put out the call and we’ve had so many people willing to help.”
MassRobotics donated any unused space in its 40,000-square-foot-facility to The Ventilator Project. Developing hardware requires physical space, of course. This can be tricky due to the physical distancing recommendations currently in place. Mantel said The Ventilator Project team is following all the recommendations for physical distancing.
“We’re sticking people separately in their own offices and being as cautious as we can,” Mantel said. “Anyone who is living with someone who is elderly doesn’t show up in the office.”
“We’re happy to provide space for these innovators to develop their tech and prototype” said Tom Ryden, Executive Director at MassRobotics. “It doesn’t surprise us that this group is coming up with a quick low cost solution. We have an amazing community of innovators, always sharing experiences and expertise with each other. This is not the first time our startups have collaborated with each other. We’re always proud at how our startups rally behind each other – we are really like a family! I believe this is why we’ve grown so quickly.”
Using robots to help the world
As is currently the case for many companies across the world, things have slowed down for Watertower Robotics. Founded in 2017, the company built a robot that inspects water pipes. The goal is to reduce the 20% of water currently lost through deteriorating infrastructure. The startup was one of three companies to win the Imagine H2O’s Urban Water Challenge in Stockholm, Sweden. It won funding to deploy its robots in Vietnam.
“For me, it’s the same mission I’ve always had,” said Mantel. “I want to affect lives in a positive way using robotics. At Watertower Robotics, we find water for people. I get excited to do these things for the world.”
The Ventilator Project set up a GoFundMe page to raise money for prototyping and testing purposes.