Matthew Callaghan and his invention, the OneBreath ventilator have managed a significant feat. Nearly 70 years after the first mechanical ventilator was invented, he has devised a low-cost alternative to a medical device which otherwise retails for $30,000.
How significant is that achievement? The device he has developed will retail at $3k a piece.
A meeting with A. Vijay Simha took OneBreath from Stanford Biodesign to the world. Simha was a former chief strategy officer at BPL, and the current CEO of OneBreath.
Another thing that sets apart Simha, Callaghan and COO Bryan Loomas is that they aren’t recent college graduates. All three have been working for over 20-25 years before starting up.
Matthew Callaghan was conducting research at the Stanford Biodesign programme in 2008 when he came up with the idea for a low-cost ventilator. The ventilator was designed in response to a statistic that the U.S would be short of over 7 million ventilators in light of a pandemic.
Callaghan had to redesign the $30k machine to make it low-cost and suitable for a pandemic like situation.
“What Matt did was to think about it differently. He said, look there are forces of nature, and there are constants in nature. We can use them as the components. You need pressure, volume and flow rate. Then why do you need all those pneumatic components?,” says Vijay Simha, who had a stint at Omidyar Network when he met Callaghan.
Consequently, Callaghan redesigned the platform by using just 2 chambers. One chamber would control the volumetric component of air, and the the other to deliver air at a fixed flow rate. OneBreath uses a pressure sensor like those found in BP monitors to measure the air pressure and volume. The machine also has a software that interprets data which helps the ventilator supply air through a valve system.
“The result is that we have now, a pressure vessel that delivers air volume by volume to the lungs, breath by breath, one breath at a time,” adds Simha.
A US Pandemic Situation & A Day in An Indian Village
The development of the project was not easy as it sounds. Callaghan and his team had to develop a product which would function in a pandemic situation in the USA.
It required critical care ventilators to be stockpiled. This meant a ventilator that should be able to operate without electricity, without the need to have a qualified intensivist, that is portable and would not break if dropped.
“It had to be simple, run on a battery and be autonomous in many ways. So I said, doesn’t that sound like something for India’s villages? He has not only built something for the pandemic preparedness market, but it was for a lot of regions across the world,” says Simha.
OneBreath’s evolution and journey to the rest of the world began thereafter.
Designing to Suit the Indian Market
Simha and Callaghan discovered that the Indian market was hard pressed to buy medical ventilators. On an average they found that there was 1 ventilator for every 10 beds in a hospital’s ICU. Among other diseases, they found India to be a country with the largest amount of pneumonia related child deaths after Nigeria.
“The fact is that this product was just begging to be developed. So we decided to do a study on the Indian scenario, and at least start designing the equipment so that it addresses a requirement in not an absolutely rural area, but in small hospitals, nursing homes etc.,” says Simha.
The company collaborated with rural healthcare company Vaatsalya for this. They used the funding obtained from UK based Wellcome Trust to conduct the study. Teams of design engineers traveled from the US to take understand conditions in Indian hospitals, understand deficiencies and incorporate them in OneBreath’s design.
While Callaghan led the team into rural areas with the help of the Vaatsalya group, Simha conducted customer focus group discussions for feedback.
Questions that needed to be solved included whether the device should use knobs or be touchscreen, how to ensure it was kept clean, how to handle the machine if it were dropped, says Simha.
“It was the longest time spent in the development of the product, to get customer insights and design inputs. At the end of the day, Matt came up with a platform design which was novel and disruptive to a certain extent,” adds Simha.
The OneBreath ventilator can be used across patient requirements as compared to the traditional medical ventilator. Conventionally, one ventilator is required per patient type.
“It is not only that each ventilator costs $20k, but if he wants to attend to different patients, he has to buy each separately. For each that costs $20k, we can give 4 ventilators,” says Simha.
“The biggest challenge was meeting the affordability criteria. What happens is that if I take an oxygen sensor used to measure oxygen, each oxygen sensor that lasts for 6-8 months costs about $8-9k. If made in larger quantities, it could come down to $1-1.5k,” says Simha.
Once the company simplified the product, they also drastically cut down costs involved, he says. This ensured that the final product will be affordable as well.
According to the company, the product will primarily retail in the “global South” and also in the US and UK. Over 7 lakh OneBreath ventilators will be sold for the pandemic preparedness program