COVID19 & OxVent – a social venture building ventilators

By Stuart Gillespie

It began with a wartime-style call to arms. ‘Your country needs you,’ Prime Minister Boris Johnson in effect told the UK’s manufacturing and medical technology sectors.

The appeal came on 16 March, a week before the UK went into its first full lockdown, when it was feared the NHS’s existing supply of mechanical ventilators might not be enough – not nearly enough – to keep up with the rapidly growing COVID-19 pandemic and the many thousands requiring hospital treatment for serious respiratory problems.

If the events of spring 2020 seem like a lifetime ago, you’re probably not alone in that feeling. But while the pandemic has had more twists than the average Agatha Christie novel, a team of engineers and medics has been quietly and steadily working round the clock on an answer to the global need for ventilation. While streets were empty and workplaces deserted, this team continued to develop and refine, to raise funds and plan distribution.

What started as a no-frills, ‘IKEA-style’ response to the UK’s immediate need for mechanical ventilators has developed into an enterprise that aims to set the standard in supplying high-quality but affordable ventilators to low and middle-income countries around the world.

The company in question is OxVent, comprising researchers from Oxford University and King’s College London (initially they worked alongside Hull-based medical manufacturing firm Smith and Nephew as part of the government’s ‘ventilator challenge’). OxVent is now in the midst of a crowdfunding campaign to help realise its goals globally, and is forging links in Latin American, the Indian subcontinent and South-East Asia.

OxVent ventilators being loaded onto Her Majesty’s Helicopter 

Those early days of behind-the-scenes diligence were not without drama, though: with just hours left to get a prototype device to the UK regulator for testing, and with vital electronic components being in Hampshire rather than Humberside, none other than Her Majesty the Queen’s private helicopter was scrambled on Easter Saturday to pick up and deliver the missing circuit boards.

Happily, those initial fears about the UK’s ventilator capacity and the health system’s ability to cope with rising hospital admissions were not borne out – and OxVent’s technology was not required domestically. But the company’s founders remain determined to help countries around the world during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.

Co-founder Professor Mark Thompson, of Oxford University’s Department of Engineering Science, says: ‘OxVent began as an academic response to the UK government’s call for more mechanical ventilators at the start of the pandemic, and we were honoured to be one of the shortlisted ventures. Now, as a social enterprise of Oxford and King’s, our aim is to deploy our technology internationally – and not just to assist with the COVID-19 response.’

According to Professor Andrew Farmery of Oxford’s Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences, OxVent’s chief medical officer, it’s predicted that the need for ventilator support and mechanical ventilation will continue to grow around the world. OxVent’s scalable, affordable and rapidly deployable ventilator technology fills the gap between expensive, complex commercial systems and more basic models that lack features such as sensors, feedback control or alarms. It is, therefore, an ideal solution for an emergency situation such as a global pandemic.

Robyn Meurant, a member of OxVent’s advisory board and a former senior technology officer at the WHO, adds: ‘Medical devices have been an ignored area. But the need for well-equipped hospitals will never go away, and over the next 10-20 years we’ll see even greater demands. More and more low and middle-income countries are trying to set up production of medical devices. Part of the solution is to keep costs low, and part of it is to bring local approaches to local problems: there’s a sense of pride in having something manufactured in your own country.’

The plan, says Carla Fuenteslopez, head of market access for OxVent, is to bring the product first to Latin America and then to expand globally. Conversations with distributors are ongoing – and going well. ‘This gives us an enormous opportunity to have a positive social impact,’ says Fuenteslopez.

OxVent is raising money now. Find out more on EquitySpark here.

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