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Durham University

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Transforming vacuums into ventilators

(29 June 2020)

Dr Joanna Berry talks us through how, when the world was going into lockdown, vacuums were turned into ventilators through an innovative collaboration between people and organisations.

The power of networking

It’s a great example of Granovetter’s 1973 ‘Strength of Weak Ties’; the basic premise of which is people that you know are nowhere near as helpful as people, that know people, that know people…that you know!

It showcases networking in action and provides a superb example of how Durham University, and its faculties, students, industry partners and regional connectivity, breeds collaboration and networking, and supports world-class innovation. 

A couple of days into the UK’s COVID-19 lockdown (my first email in this complex trail is dated 25 March), I received a text from one of our previous Durham MBA students, who graduated in 2018, Dr Matthew Holmes, Senior Innovation Program Manager at a regional company owned by a FTSE 100 American construction giant. He and his team – the prime inventor Oli Beckett, Lead Mechanical Engineer, being a Durham University engineering alumnus (specialising in new and renewable energy), had worked overnight and come up with a 3D-printed ventilator. Not pretty, not perfect, but powered by a vacuum cleaner engine that one of the team had brought in from his home in the early, pre-lockdown days of COVID-19.

The process

This simple, easy to create, power and operate, portable and – importantly – cost-effective solution to the UK’s desperate shortage of ventilators, faced enormous logistical problems. It needed official recognition as a viable unit by the medical device accreditation bodies.

We needed to get what our Australian anaesthetist advisor called ‘the knobology’ right (protocols for medical device basic switching functions are very specific). It needed, importantly, to ‘breathe’ at the right rate (12 breaths per minute). We needed a ‘real’ ventilator to match the specifications of our first few iterations against – and real ventilators were in very short supply. And it needed dedication and commitment from a complex, multifunctional, interdisciplinary team, despite some members of which were furloughed in the middle of the development process. 

The team

Myself, Peter Allen, and the team from the University’s Research Innovation Services (RIS) moved into action. But where to start?

One of my MBA students from Newcastle University is now the CEO of the Northern Health Science Alliance Ltd pointed us in some very useful directions.

The Head of the Army Servicewomen’s Network (an organisation I speak for regularly) whose wife is a practicing GP, put us in touch with our Australian anaesthetist friend, who was a great long-distance advisor.

James Limb, Consultant Anaesthetist/ Intensivist and Director Research and Innovation at County Durham and Darlington NHS Foundation Trust, has been an enormous supporter of the project and on 21 April got his hands on a ventilator, CPAP device and anaesthetic machine to show us the full range of devices.

Professor Jane Turner, Teesside University, opened up the School of Health and Social Sciences for us so that essential tests and processes could be tested on a proper resuscitation dummy.

Professor David Sims-Williams from Durham University’s Department of Engineering was hugely supportive as we looked for prototyping opportunities.

Professor John Girkin, Director of the Durham University Centre for Advanced Instrumentation in Physics, offered up some CPI and CDP contacts who were invaluable.

Parker Hannifin in Birtley – their General Manager Kris Holmes is another Durham MBA graduate – helped put us in touch with Brian Lane, VP Technology and Innovation for their Filtration Group globally in Cleveland, for filter prototyping.

Peter Caine at Stanley Black & Decker supplied a number of complete vacuum cleaners that provide the engine behind the device.

Professor Jon Gluyas, Director of the Durham Energy Institute (DEI), turned out to have a most useful sister-in-law who helped with Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) contacts and offered up her time and insight. Rob Williams, BT Senior Manager and DEI Advisory Board member, was also hugely helpful in putting us in touch with the Durham and Darlington NHS Trust.

I also reached out to the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy through another DEI contact, with whom I had recently had dinner at the House of Lords; Lord Callanan, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy. Lord Callanan is also an honorary ‘Northeasterner’, formally known as Baron Callanan, of Low Fell in the County of Tyne and Wear and gave us the inside track on the Government’s ventilator challenge process.

We set up suitably distanced conversations with anaesthetists from Ascot to Australia and Doctors from Darlington to Dundee, to establish a use-case.

We established lines of communication with medical equipment approval organisations including the MHRA.

We involved the military via the Station Commander at RAF Leeming, Group Captain Blythe Crawford, who heads up the RAFX (RAF Experimental) team and Innovation Hub based at Leeming. He and his team are connected to the tri-service medical chain across the UK and they were very supportive with ideas and advice.

Working together

We collaborated like crazy. Not only with our own Durham engineers and other regional university departments, but also by calling in favours, pulling in personal contacts, expanding existing professional relationships, and developing new ones. A fair number of calls were made, to some very significant individuals, on the basis of the popular Northern phrase “shy bairns get nowt”.

Some heavyweight input from RIS and our alumni relations teams, and seriously senior advice and/or assistance from Dyson, Stanley Black & Decker, and Parker Hannifin amongst others, has got us all together and to the stage where the product exists, works and does what it needs to do the way it needs to do it.

As I write, it is clear (we hope) we do not have the urgent need for ventilators here in the UK that will require our continued work on this product with quite such urgency. However, there still exist developing markets with little, if any, hospital infrastructure; there are still military and other field operatives in places where the availability of such a product could save lives.

So we are reaching out to Médecins Sans Frontières, Team Rubicon, and others working in disaster zones, virus-led or otherwise, to see where next this effective, cheap, innovative product – the Durham Ventilator – can go.

More information

  • Dr Berry advises this is only a brief summary of the process involved in this project, as some non-disclosure agreements are still in place.
  • Read more COVID-19 features here.

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