UBC students have designed a "low-cost" ventilator

Apr 24 2020, 11:39 am

A group of engineering students at the University of British Columbia (UBC) have created what they say is a “simple, low-cost COVID-19 ventilator that may very well save lives.”

And now, their design — built around a modified BiPAP machine — is among the final 10 in the Code Life Ventilator Challenge, an international competition that has attracted more than 1,000 teams from 94 participating countries.

The competition, hosted by the Montreal General Hospital Foundation and McGill University Health Centre, invited participants to design a ventilator that can be manufactured easily anywhere in the world and adheres to compliance specifications. Final results will be announced by the end of the week.

The team calls itself FlowO2, and includes Oded Aminov (master in biomedical engineering), Tanya Bennet (PhD biomedical engineering), Sam Berryman (PhD mechanical engineering), Georgia Grzybowski (master in biomedical engineering), Adam Levschuk (master in biomedical engineering), Tynan Stack (mechanical engineering alumnus), Laura Stankiewicz (PhD biomedical engineering), and Nico Werschler (PhD biomedical engineering).

The team organized after learning of the design challenge and came up with the idea of customizing the BiPAP machine, which has been used for years to treat sleep apnea. Communicating through Skype and reaching out to faculty mentors, parts suppliers, and medical experts, the team worked to develop the ventilator. Funding was provided by the Engineers in Scrubs program and the faculty of applied science, alongside donated equipment from the Provincial Pulmonary Outreach Program and testing and fabrication support from TRIUMF.

“Instead of building a ventilator from the ground up, we decided to use the BiPAP machine because it’s already approved for medical applications and people know how it works,” said Stankiewicz. “This allowed us to focus our efforts on writing the special software needed and securing additional parts — which are easily sourced from hardware stores or online suppliers — that would turn it into a potential life support tool for people with COVID-19.”

In just two weeks, the team had a prototype ready to ship out to Montreal for evaluation.

“Where conventional ventilators cost from $25,000 to $50,000, our invention should cost only a few thousand dollars to manufacture — and most of that is from the cost of the BiPAP machine,” said Werschler.

“When the students saw this challenge, they just jumped on it like nothing else,” said Dr. Roger Tam, director of the Engineers in Scrubs program and an associate professor of radiology in the faculty of medicine.

“This is Canadian innovation at its best: aligning cutting-edge research capability with positive societal impact,” says Walter Merida, associate dean in the faculty of applied science. “The COVID-19 outbreak has had a significant impact on the economy, and the FlowO2 team exemplifies the type of leadership and talent that will be required to ensure Canada’s recovery.”

Looking forward, Levschuk said the next steps are “to use our competition results to further improve our system.”

This, she said, includes “continued improvement upon the components we use — whether that means sourcing cheaper, more accurate or more robust materials.”

Within the next couple weeks, “we will make a final push to get our BiPAP-to-ventilator augmentation kit approved by Health Canada,” she added. “Our ultimate goal is to make a low-cost and readily available system that will make a meaningful impact to the health authorities who use it.”