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Behind the innovation challenge: Montreal team sprints to manufacture low-cost ventilators for the world

“The challenge came at a time when everybody was very concerned about COVID, including all these fantastically brilliant engineers, who were locked out of their offices and sitting at home.” — Reza Farivar, project supervisor, McGill University faculty and Canada Research Chair in Integrative Neurosciences

Many weaknesses in the health care system have been exposed during this pandemic.

Last spring, as Italy emerged as an epicenter for COVID-19, the images of physicians and health care workers rationing ventilators and other life-saving equipment stuck with Dr. Peter Goldberg.

 As head of critical care at Montreal's McGill University Health Centre (MUHC), he began to worry about the MUHC hospitals’ own supplies.

They had a critical need for ventilators to treat COVID-19 patients, but the cost alone made stockpiling ventilators seem nearly impossible, with many models in the hospitals valued at around $30,000, and the cheapest ones on the market ranging from $5,000 to $10,000 per unit.

That’s when he was approached by Reza Farivar with the idea for the Code Life Ventilator Challenge — a global innovation challenge to design low-cost, easy-to-use and easy-to-build ventilators to address the shortage.

Dr. Peter Goldberg received a COVID-19 Innovation grant from Joule for his work on the Made for All Initiative, phase two of the Code Life Ventilator Challenge. Learn more about the program and grant recipients.

From idea to proposal

Reza Farivar and a group of intensive care unit physicians approached the president of the Montreal General Hospital (MGH) Foundation to seek funding for a prize.

“Looking back, I realize how little we had to go on and how much they had to risk in order to support this,” said Farivar. “It was really, truly brave.”

With approval from the hospital foundation’s board and Dr. Goldberg’s leadership, this team of physicians launched the Code Life Ventilator Challenge in mid-March in collaboration with the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre (RI-MUHC) and the McGill University ENGINE (Engineering Innovation and Entrepreneurship) Centre.

Together, the Canadian Medical Association, Scotiabank and MD Financial Management backed the challenge by providing the team with additional funding for prize money and key operational costs.


Phase one

The first phase of the challenge was ambitious: a two-week sprint to source a low-cost ventilator design that could serve COVID-19 patients across Canada and internationally.

“We had never done anything like this before and didn’t know what would happen,” said Farivar.

The Code Life Ventilator Challenge was a resounding success.  They received more than 2,600 registrations, representing over 1,000 teams from 94 countries. One of the semifinalists, the Canadian company CAE, went on to develop a new ventilator and won a federal contract as a result of their participation in the challenge.

 A team of experts were assembled to test the prototypes, including world-renowned critical care experts, respiratory therapists, medical device experts and mechanical ventilator manufacturers.

They narrowed the entries down to three finalists, and in May they awarded the design challenge prize to Haply, a Montreal-based team.

“We selected their design because it was very simple, but also fairly robust,” said Farivar, “and had the most potential to be the exact device that we need.”

“It’s been a massive team effort — I've been incredibly lucky to have very patient and smart people around to tell me: ‘Well, you know, it's a little bit more complicated than that, but let's see what we can do.’” – Reza Farivar

Phase two

With a design in hand, the team launched the second phase in July, funded by Joule and the MGH Foundation, called the Made for All Initiative, with the goal of yielding a sub-$1000 design that would receive Health Canada approval.

In this phase of the challenge, manufacturing and compliance experts — including industrial and design engineers, medical device experts, technical writers and clinical respiratory experts — gathered in teams to continue tweaking Haply’s winning design, all while making sure the total cost remained below C$1000.

According to Farivar, while the design still needs some tweaking before it’s ready for Health Canada’s approval process, they’re working toward manufacturing the first few units in the spring.

Once they get Health Canada approval, the team plans to release a manufacturing package with a low-cost licence. With this licence, ventilators can be manufactured locally, reducing the delays and lost shipments that plague products manufactured overseas. 

“If we manage to succeed, this is going to be one of the lowest cost design projects for ventilators ever,” said Farivar.


A global perspective

Although Canada has been able to secure an adequate supply of ventilators since the challenge was launched, the need for cost-efficient ventilators remains urgent in certain low- and middle-income countries.

“There’s still a massive disparity in ventilator availability,” explained Farivar. “At the beginning of the pandemic, Canada had about as many ventilators as India, but India has 30 times the population. And some countries didn’t have any at all.”

He also noted that once the pandemic is over, these ventilators will continue to be necessary for other illnesses, including viral pneumonia.

“Every year, many people die because they don’t have access to breathing assistance,” he added.

With health care systems across the world strained past their limits, securing an affordable supply of life-saving equipment could mean one less thing to worry about.

More stories about Joule's COVID-19 Innovation grant recipients:

This material is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice and should not be relied on as health or personal advice. The opinions stated by the authors are made in a personal capacity and do not necessarily reflect those of the Canadian Medical Association and its subsidiaries including Joule.

About the author(s)

CMA Joule supports physicians and medical learners in the pursuit of clinical excellence. As a subsidiary of the Canadian Medical Association (CMA), we support the profession with continuing education and other learning opportunities as well as leading evidence-based clinical products and research.