By Brenda J Trainor
Breathing is not rocket science, but rocket scientists are working to help COVID-19 patients breathe. In less than 40 days, scientists at JPL have been able to design, produce a prototype, and begin licensing an affordable ventilator to help alleviate a potentially critical need in health care facilities around the world that are treating COVID patients.
The process of developing this ventilator, dubbed VITAL: (Ventilation Intervention Technology Available Locally) was described at a recent MADIA Tech Launch virtual meeting (madiatech.org). Dan Broderick is the manager of technology transfer at JPL, the Caltech research facility based in Pasadena, and he explained that the VITAL project started with a conversation between two engineers over coffee.
The need for ventilators was a global concern in March as predictions for the course of COVID treatment rates would appear to exceed the availability of ventilators presumed necessary for treatment. A meeting was held in JPL’s “Left Field,” a brainstorming meeting space at the La Cañada Flintridge facility. JPL, through its ongoing relationships with NASA and major healthcare research institutions like UCLA and Mt Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine, created and funded a “tiger team” approach to tackle the challenge of this project.
The use of a “tiger team” is an organizational development strategy that dedicates and empowers cross-functional experts and the highest priority of resources and support exclusively to a clearly-defined project. Remember the phrase “failure is impossible” from the Apollo 13 mission crisis? The successful solution was found using the “tiger team” approach.
JPL is not the only organization attempting to tackle the challenge of creating needed ventilators in response to the COVID pandemic. Its specialized approach is unusual in that they are not seeking to manufacture the device; rather they have created an open-source design and specifications, built and tested two styles of prototypes, and received federal approval by June first — less than 40 days from a thought to a U.S. Food and Drug Administration Emergency Use Authorization. Notably, JPL is offering licenses for free to qualified commercial manufacturers around the world.
Broderick reported that 27 licenses have been granted all around the world thus far for further development and commercialization. Very few of the licensees were to large corporations, rather this free license has been of particular appeal to smaller, agile, entrepreneurial organizations around the world, including three in southern California, and others on six continents, in countries like Brazil, India, and Nigeria.
A link to the posted YouTube video of Broderick’s VITAL presentation to MADIA Tech Launch can be found at the organization’s web site (madiatech.org). MADIA is a dynamic and home-grown organization that encourages networking and interactions amongst its techno-centric community of cities, employees, investors, business owners, thought leaders, educators, government officials, innovators, and students with monthly meetings and special events as well as through online assets like LinkedIn, YouTube, and Facebook.