April 08, 2020

How makers are helping solve the shortage of medical supplies

Arnaud Castaignet

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The names of Cristian Fracassi and Alessandro Romaioli may not sound familiar but you have probably heard about their story. These 2 engineers work for Isinnova, a 3D printing startup. A few weeks ago, Gardone Valtrompia Hospital head physician Renato Favero contacted them. As you know, Italy is currently the most affected country by the Covid-19. Doctors are doing their best to fight the pandemic but they don’t have enough medical supply such as ventilators.

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Renato Favero had an idea. He knew that when supplies ran low, doctors and nurses began using Decathlon's full-face, 'Easybreath' snorkels as face shields. He wanted to take it further and convert these snorkelling kits into emergency ventilator masks, which could be plugged into a machine. However, he didn’t have the right skills to do it and scale it, so he reached out to Cristian and Alessandro. They contacted snorkeling maker Decathlon and the French sporting goods retailer was immediately willing to cooperate and offered up design drawings of the mask to help the effort..

The two engineers developed a 3D printed prototype, which was tested on hospital staff and proven to be correctly working before it was used for the first time successfully on a patient in need. It worked perfectly and Isinnova is now offering its innovation to hospitals elsewhere, releasing full instructions and a video demonstration so health professionals can buy masks from Decathlon and create their own emergency ventilator masks. It is now not possible anymore for individuals to buy these diving masks because the sporting goods retailer has decided to give them to caregivers and hospitals in Europe.

This isn’t the only example. Across the world, the makers community and networks of small-scale DIY manufacturers have mobilized to fix the shortage of medical supply. Some came up with the idea, found the right partners during hackathons and are now even building successful startups. For instance, in Latvia, Shield48, one of the winners of HackForce hackathon – part of the Hack the Crisis movement that started in Estonia and have now spread to more than 50 countries worldwide - signed a contract with Latvian government to produce 10 000 face shields only 5 days after the hackathon and delivered their product after 10 days. They also received a loan from the Latvian government to speed up the development. Shield48 started with virtual meetings with Paula Stradiņa Klīniskā universitāte (PSKUS) specialists, so the very first prototypes were made for testing. On the second day of the hackathon, the team presented its prototypes to Latvia’s leading epidemiologists. As a result – the best prototypes were accepted for further development. The face shield is not designed as a mask but is to be used additionally to already existing face masks and other protective gear, such as glasses, to ensure greater protection. Today, they have already received requests for 16,000 face shields.

Shortage of personal protective equipment is endangering health workers worldwide, so the role of makers is critical in helping hospitals and doctors fight this pandemic. While it is important to find solutions that are adapted to local needs, such good practices and examples must be made accessible to a greater audience. Across the world, makers or innovators may have ideas to solve the shortage of medical supply but lack resources, guidances or the right skill.

This is where initiatives such as The Global Hack can play a very important role. Held on 9-12 April and organized by Garage48 and Accelerate Estonia, this online hackathon is aiming to gather thousands of innovators, some of them have already participated in Hack the Crisis hackathons. Sharing good practices and ideas worldwide can help people solve issues faced locally. At a time where half of the world’s population is in lockdown, we can all find inspiration from others and help health workers that are currently on the frontline.