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Scuba gear, coffee makers inspire inventors in design challenge for a cheaper ventilator

The ventilator has been a vital piece of medical machinery in treating some of the most severe COVID-19 patients. But the devices were hard to come by and expensive at the beginning of the pandemic, prompting a group of residents at Massachusetts General Hospital to start the CoVent-19 Challenge to design a cheaper, easy-to-assemble model. John Yang reports on the innovative ideas it inspired.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The pandemic is forcing innovation.

    John Yang explores a competition to make better ventilators.

    It's part of our Breakthroughs series covering invention.

  • Man:

    Why don't we bring you — I will bring a computer over, and they can give you a tour of the machine as it stands?

  • John Yang:

    This is how a team of Maine high school students and recent graduates came up with a ventilator design during the pandemic: a shaky video conference.

  • Man:

    Well, it's just a very easy way to hit, and use actual water.

  • John Yang:

    Baxter Academy engineering teacher Johnny Amory assembled the team, including 15-year-old sophomore Emily Mickool.

  • Emily Mickool:

    Amory gave us a list of resources, and told us to learn as much about ventilators as we could.

  • Jon Amory:

    We were thinking about what kind of ventilators could be built, you know, distributed.

    So, we had to have kits, so that they could be sent to people. So we designed a ventilator that could be put together with about four hand tools, two crescent wrenches, an Allen key set, and a screwdriver.

  • John Yang:

    They're part of the CoVent-19 challenge, a global virtual competition to design ventilators that can be built quickly and cheaply with readily available components.

    In the early days of the COVID pandemic, there were fears, largely unrealized so far for a variety of reasons, that U.S. hospitals would run out of ventilators.

  • Gov. Jay Inslee:

    We're searching the globe for additional ventilators.

  • Gov. Andrew Cuomo:

    You cannot find them. Every state is trying to get them. Other countries are trying to get them.

  • John Yang:

    Dr. Richard Boyer, an anesthesiology resident at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, thought up the CoVent-19 challenge in March while self-isolating with his wife, Emily, after he was exposed to a coronavirus patient.

  • Richard Boyer:

    I got a little bored, and I…

  • Emily Blatter Boyer:

    He got bored on day three.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Emily Blatter Boyer:

    So, you know, it didn't take that long.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Richard Boyer:

    I used to be a medical device designer, and I use ventilators every day. So, when I started learning about the ventilator shortages, it became very natural to me to want to work on the engineering side of this issue.

  • John Yang:

    Emily, who works in education, is head of operations, organizing the more than 20 MGH residents running the competition.

  • Emily Blatter Boyer:

    All of the residents were taking on roles and responsibilities that are not part of being a doctor. So, we have one person who's managing our social media, the other person who's managing the Web site, also doing it without the ability of being in the same room.

  • John Yang:

    There were 213 entries from more than 40 countries. A team of medical and technical experts selected seven finalists, one of them a small team in Scotland led by Ross Hunter.

  • Ross Hunter:

    I did not expect to be a finalist. It was truly a surprise.

  • John Yang:

    Hunter, CEO of a company that makes luxury eco-accommodations, based this design on a pet project he's been tinkering with for years, a commercial coffee machine.

  • Ross Hunter:

    I actually already had a coffee machine prototype, and instead of water, started putting air into it, and, you know, I didn't know what to expect, but it looked like promising results from there. So that then led me on to the quest to make a ventilator out of a coffee machine, effectively.

  • John Yang:

    That kind of outside-the-box thinking was key for another finalist:, the students at Baxter Academy, a public charter school in Portland, Maine.

  • Emily Mickool:

  • Emily Mickool:

    We didn't have this preconceived notion of what a ventilator should look like. My teacher Amory talks a lot about group think.

    Our brain gets stuck on the idea of what we want to do, before we start exploring something that could potentially be a better option.

  • Richard Boyer:

    And the key to open innovation, I think, is having people that don't come from your field apply their insights.

    The group that you mentioned from Scotland that created their ventilator from what was initially a coffee maker, I don't imagine that an anesthesiologist or a typical medical device company would ever have looked at that design. But, here, he's developed a design that's very feasible as a safe ventilator and very economical.

  • John Yang:

    All the entered designs are free for anyone to download, in hopes they help developing countries where ventilators are in short supply.

    As the medical community gains experience with COVID-19, some physicians have begun using ventilators less often in certain types of cases, but the devices remain a key part of treatment.

  • Richard Boyer:

    There is no other way to ventilate these patients safely, other than with a ventilator. And they are critical parts of our ICU.

  • John Yang:

    Ventilators used in U.S. hospitals can cost between $20,000 to $50,000, and the federal government is spending an average of $15,000 each to add about 200,000 ventilators to the national stockpile.

    The cost of these designs?

  • Jon Amory:

    The ventilator that we have now, we built for about $2,500. And that includes the price of a 3-D printer that you would use to print off some of the parts.

  • Ross Hunter:

    Very cost-effective. I mean, the materials for the parts behind me, it's less than $700.

  • John Yang:

    The CoVent-19 challenge presented challenges to learn from.

  • Ross Hunter:

    My knowledge of ventilators was zero at the beginning of this. And it's been one of the sharpest learning curves I have ever encountered in my life.

    I have — literally, nights and days were spent reading up on medical journals, finding out about how these work, why these work.

  • Jon Amory:

    So, what is interesting is, a lot of the things that were stumbling blocks, I think, led to better design overall. For example, we have a low-pressure regulator that drops the pressure down, and that was delayed in terms of getting to us.

    So we were using a scuba — you know, a $25 scuba regulator that you can buy at any dive shop.

  • John Yang:

    And it also served to inspire.

  • Emily Blatter Boyer:

    We're dealing with so much distress in the world, from economic stress, from political and social stress, from obviously our — the stress on our health care system and people losing loved ones every day.

    For people to commit themselves to — so much to something, to a goal, and to see it come to fruition is incredibly inspiring.

  • Emily Mickool:

    We were doing our presentation, and I was thinking they have heard rocket engineers and Ph.D candidates speaking.

    And I'm a 15-year-old. I, like, just learned how to start driving a car.

    I try not to think of it as, like, we're pitted against each other, but being in the same collaborative space as those voices is a really great opportunity.

  • John Yang:

    And even if neither of these teams is the winner announced on Wednesday, they have already gained and given so much.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang.

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