British Columbia

UBC students among final 10 teams in global competition to create low-cost ventilator

A University of British Columbia engineering team has reached the final 10 in an international competition to develop a low cost ventilator.

1,029 teams from 94 countries entered challenge at start of April, with $200K up for grabs

The team, called FlowO2, includes graduate students from UBC's mechanical and biomedical engineering programs (from left to right, top to bottom): Tynan Stack, Sam Berryman, Adam Levschuk, Georgia Grzybowski and Laura Stankiewicz, Tanya Bennet, Nico Werschler and Oded Aminov. (Submitted by UBC)

A group of engineering students from the University of British Columbia are among the final 10 competitors in an international competition designed to find a low-cost ventilator to help patients with COVID-19. 

The competition, called the Code Life Ventilator Challenge, is a global initiative by the Montreal General Hospital Foundation and the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre.

At the beginning of April, 1,029 teams from 94 countries entered the two-week challenge to create "a simple, low-cost, easy-to-manufacture and easy-to-maintain ventilator which could be deployed anywhere needed to save lives."

Laura Stankiewicz, a PhD student in biomedical engineering and member of the UBC engineering team called "FlowO2," said her team's strategy was to use what was already right there.

"We were thinking about what solutions are already available in the hospital that would be an easy thing to augment, add some components to it, and convert something people already know how to use," Stankiewicz told host Gloria Macarenko on CBC's On The Coast.

Listen to the interview with UBC PhD student Laura Stankiewicz:

The team decided to modify a bilevel positive airway pressure machine, commonly called a BiPap machine. These devices are often used for people who have sleep apnea. 

"Similar to a ventilator, it has all of the controls that are necessary to push air into your lungs and help you breath," Stankiewicz said. 

Her team has been adding extra components to the machine to make it function more like a regular ventilator, and communicate a patient's condition more accurately to the doctor or nurse. 

The UBC engineering team focused on devices already used in hospitals that could be easily modified. (Submitted by UBC)

Stankiewicz said it was important that any component they added to the existing device would be readily available, and so far, all the additions are easily found at a hardware store or online. 

In addition to the challenge of coming up with the prototype, the team has been working on the project while maintaining physical distancing. 

"I live on my Skype chat with my team, pretty much all day," Stankiewicz said, laughing. 

"People [are] biking around the city trying to drop off supplies and making sure we're not seeing each other as much as possible."

Lowering costs

Using a BiPap machine and the additional components would cost as little as a tenth of what a regular ventilator costs, which can be up to $50,000.

"A BiPap usually ranges between $1,000 and $5,000 ... then all of the other components that we're adding, we're looking for another $1,000 to $2,000," she said. 

Stankiewicz says the team still has to iron out some software issues and get some clinical feedback on the design. 

The winning team will receive a $200,000 prize. The top three finalists will be announced next week. 

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With files from On The Coast