Mechanical Ventilators: A Story of Rapid Innovation in Colombia

Singularity’s social media manager Venus Ranieri recently talked with Mauricio Toro, an entrepreneur, engineer and Singularity community member who launched a project to design and build affordable mechanical ventilators for his home country of Colombia. Within days, the government and innovation community had rallied around the project. The effort is creating tangible impact, while serving as a prime example of innovation during a crisis.

Hi, Mauricio, thanks for taking the time to talk to us today. For those who may not know you, would you mind introducing yourself?

I’m a mechanical engineer from Colombia and CEO of TECHFIT Digital Surgery Inc, in Daytona Beach, Florida.

What’s your association with Singularity up to now? Follower, community member, alumni?

I’m an Exponential Medicine Alumni. I’ve been there three times. And last year, I took our company to pitch in the MEDy Awards and we actually won the MEDy Award for convergence.

Congratulations! What you do at TECHFIT probably has some association with the project you’re working on. Would you mind explaining how you got the idea and what the project is in general?

Yeah, definitely. So what we do in our company is we make 3D printed custom bone reconstruction implants. So we start from a CT scan and we convert it into a virtual model, convert that into a silicon model, and work with the physician to create the perfect implant for the patient. We’re used to designing parts and innovating on the fly. And when the COVID-19 crisis started, we started looking at ways to help. We found out that one of the key issues was going to be a shortage of mechanical ventilation. So, you know, with our team that believes everything is possible, we had a call and we said, okay, how can we create a low cost, easy to create mechanical ventilator? That was inspired by a tweet from Daniel Kraft from Exponential Medicine. So, we found a paper from MIT in 2010 and then things just snowballed from there.

I read you are trying to make a $1,000 ventilator, instead of the regular $25,000. Is that correct?

Yes, exactly. Even a government like Colombia’s, which is not a high priority government for exports, they’re getting quotes for around $60,000 per ventilator. Our target is $1,000.

Obviously that gives more people a fighting chance. What do the next 30 days look like for you?

Okay, so I’ll go back a little bit. When we decided to start this project, I shared it in a WhatsApp group for the Colombian innovation community. There are innovation managers from many companies, and this got traction very quickly. So within 10 days, we had three teams that were working on different concepts for a low-cost ventilator, we had support from the country’s major industrials, and we had support from the government. We raised $2 million dollars from the leading soft drink company, and money starting to pour into the project. So this gave us a start. That was on a Monday, and the next monday it already had 60 people working on it, and it was fully funded. Right now [at the time of interview] we have an approved working prototype and just finished the in-vitro testing phase.

We’ve created all three of the ventilator models, which are all slightly different. We did this just in case one of them doesn’t work. We wanted to have two others as default options. Now all three prototypes have finished their in vitro testing phase. Next up is live animal testing.

As you said, it’s thanks to the innovation community in Colombia that’s helping bring this idea to life. What does it mean to you to have this type of notoriety and news coming out of Colombia?

Before starting our company in the US, we’ve had a company in Colombia that does the same thing, I’ve been working there for 12 years. I’ve been working very hard with the whole innovation community to make Colombia believe in science and technology, and to believe that we can develop a game-changing technology. We have a problem where corporates are very skeptical, so showing this capability and getting the traction, getting all these people to bet on us, and inspiring the community to create change has been amazing. I know there are at least 10 other teams outside of our network that are working on mechanical ventilators, and the maker community has been rallying to create personal protection equipment and everything. So I mean, this inspired the medical innovation community in Colombia so much.

What do you think the rest of the world can learn from the innovation you’ve achieved?

I think the biggest thing is, in technology—especially healthcare technology—it’s always been about weighing the benefit versus the risk. We’ve been focused on mitigating the risk and by doing that, we’ve created an environment that might be a stopper for innovation. I think we need to start looking at healthcare technology by looking at increasing the benefit rather than reducing the risk. And I know this is a big challenge, but if this crisis teaches us anything, it’s that we can look at medical innovation with a different optic, and eliminate a little bit of the red tape of getting things to market. I think there are some great innovations out there that never make it out of the lab because the system is rigged. It’s focused on having zero risk, and I think that’s the denominator, but you also have to look at the numerator, and if the benefit outweighs the risk, you should actually go for it.

This mindset shift that’s happened over the past three months—how do you think we can make it last in the medical community in terms of being able to create new things and tear down the walls that separate us?

Well, number one, a digital transformation was accelerated because we’re sending everybody home. These have been technologies to watch, but nobody ever wanted to gamble on them. Now they’re mainstream. Few go to an ER or urgent care because everybody’s doing telemedicine. This is technology that has been touted for over 10 years as the next game changer, and it came to life. I think there’s no coming back from that.

I also think the medical technology industry is being put through a stress test. How quickly can you deploy a solution that helps in a specific problem, that is not necessarily the problem you were thinking to solve at first? It’s a matter of agility. A lot of the project management principles are going to move into more agile methodologies. We’re going to start valuing speed a lot more than we did. We’re going to need to have innovation ecosystems and medical innovation hubs that are ready to jump into action.

The other thing that I think is going to change almost permanently is that people are going to start working a lot more from home. So the infrastructure for work environments is going to change drastically because I think after three weeks or a month of forced telecommuting, we’re going to learn how to work from home, and we’re going to know that we can be productive and that people can be trusted with goals. I think that’s a big change.

This story is one of innovation and strength of community, of what can happen when you can get people grounded around one central idea and bring it to life. I know there are plenty of people in our community and out in the world who are struggling to get started with an idea, or have some inkling of how they can help but don’t know how to get involved. What advice would you like to leave them with?

I would say just get it out there if you have an idea. When we started with this, we had never made a mechanical ventilator. All we’d done was read a paper. We put it out there into the universe, and the experts came. The people who had done mechanical ventilation appeared and they joined the team. I think the key is, if you have an idea, no matter how ridiculous it sounds, test it with the community, because if it has traction, you can achieve the impossible.

Thank you for taking time to talk to us. I wish all the best for you and the team in getting across the finish line. I look forward to seeing the updates come through, and the community is here to help.

Thank you, Venus. And thank you to SU for letting us share this story. We hope this inspires other people around the world to start projects like this, because right now we really need the innovators to stop thinking that they’re going to give up and lie down. They need to help our healthcare professionals, who are taking risks every day to keep us safe. We need to give them the tools they need to do the work. There are many, many ways we can help. Mechanical ventilators are one way, but there’s a million other ways, and I’m sure the joint intelligence of the community can achieve the impossible.

TECHFIT website

Mauricio on Twitter