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Building an Open Source Ventilator through Global Collaboration

By Marie Kalliney, Sasha Evers, and Jelena Ivanjac

The COVID-19 pandemic has surfaced clear examples of why organizations are better off cooperating and collaborating when developing medical device solutions. The work of Helpful Engineering and Public Invention are examples of this model of efficient and effective collaboration. Bringing together and integrating teams from across the globe, the two organizations have achieved rapid success in designing globally and producing locally open source ventilator solutions. Both organizations have realized the benefits of working together during their respective journeys and now share their lessons learned so others may achieve similar results. 


Ventilators remain in high demand. Hospitals worldwide continue to have a desperate need for the devices since the onset of the pandemic. Most problematic has been the availability, accessibility, and acceptability of available solutions. Existing ventilators on the market are cost-prohibitive. Current service and support models limit self-service when necessary, making purchasing the devices impossible for or unacceptable to many Low/Middle Income Countries (LMIC). These challenges are complex and surface inherent limitations of regulatory frameworks, which lag behind current manufacturing technologies and capabilities and their abilities to mitigate supply chain disruptions.


With the Delta variant of COVID now sweeping the globe — accounting for 80% of new COVID-19 cases — there is renewed interest in and momentum for pandemic relief efforts. Diverse open solutions exist to support these national and international initiatives. Still, they require regulators to understand and modernize regulatory processes for open source and distributed medical device manufacturing.

Nathan has been an inventor since early childhood. These are just a few of the early prototypes for PolyVent.


Nathaniel Bechard, a 16-year-old Canadian designer and prototyper for PolyVent, and Dr. Robert Read from the US, Dr. Erich Schulz of Australia and Mr. Ben Coombs of New Zealand, the inventors of the VentOS project, have teamed up to produce ventilator designs easy to manufacture in LMICs. Public Invention and Helpful sponsor both projects. VentOS is a free, open-source software library and embedded operating system for ventilation equipment.  PolyVent is a versatile reference ventilator design producible with diverse materials and components.


Collaboration between the inventors involved in this ventilator hardware and software initiative has generated a broader circle of knowledge by leveraging the collective experience of all team members. Hailing from the US, Canada, Europe, New Zealand, and Australia, the teams work in a distributed manner. Due to the international structure of the group, they have learned to accommodate the various potential environmental issues each geographical design implementation may require.


As a result of this global collaboration, we have learned this way of working together yields the following benefits:


     1. Fast Learning Cycles

Teams working in collaboration learn from their collective successes and failures, and they are not limited to individual experiences. When a team surfaces a challenge, supporting teams are instantly able and ready to generate new ideas leading to solutions.


     2. Elimination of Geographic Constraints Increases Talent Brought to Bear

Collaboration means bringing diverse talent together and establishing a broad pool of different skills and knowledge. As a result of the COVID-19 crisis, the usage of many applications allowing global communication, file sharing, and distributed teamwork have become commonplace. Significant benefits have been realized by sharing information and knowledge, regardless of timezone or physical location. Geographical distribution improves the strength of the team rather than slows down its progress.


     3. Breaking down barriers

Finding available, accessible, and acceptable solutions has never been more urgent for practical COVID-19 medical relief efforts. The work of individuals like Nathaniel, Robert, Erich, and Ben in producing open-source innovations like PolyVent and VentOS enable solutions to be made locally and help address challenges like supply chain disruption and hoarding. At the same time, parts and components can be adapted and substituted to address local environmental considerations. For example, field hospitals in rainy parts of the world have different climatic concerns than hospitals in hot, dry, desert climates.

Robert Read is holding a device called VentMon, created by Public Invention. VentMon is an open-source device that simply plugs into the airway of a breathing circuit and measures the parameters of an operating ventilator.


These software and hardware projects enable local teams to create tailored ventilators based on PolyVent’s and VentOS’s reference designs. Local populations can also produce critical resources faster and with ownership of the final product. Practically, all  localized solutions can be further refined to meet specific community needs.


Our mission includes the support of global health through collaborative, open, and sustainable innovation. Collaborative approaches to development have clear and demonstrable benefits. It fosters a sense of community and purpose at local and global levels, and builds a culture of mutual support across these communities. The inventors’ partnership is an excellent example of what can happen when people have access to knowledge and resources, resulting in impactful solutions.


If you are interested in making a difference by supporting open-source hardware and software development, we encourage you to reach out to Helpful Engineering and Public Invention. We welcome anyone and everyone passionate about making a positive difference, just as all of us are!

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