Over the second weekend in March, Mauricio Toro
, a mechanical engineer and CEO of Techfit, the Florida branch of a Colombian-owned company that 3D-prints surgical devices, saw a tweet from Singularity University
that read, “Wouldn’t it be great to create an open-source ventilator?”
Colombia’s population of 50 million people, including 2 million recently absorbed Venezuelan refugees, was likely to suffer badly from the coronavirus outbreak, as the nation’s public health care system was fragile, and ventilators were in short supply.
With every country in the world bidding for the lifesaving machines to provide oxygen to patients in extreme respiratory distress, Colombia- like the rest of the developing world- was likely to be priced out of the international market.
“These are economies with preexisting conditions. It is very hard for them to get medical equipment,” said Luis Alberto Moreno, president of the Inter-American Development Bank (Vanity Fair
Toro knew that MIT had posted open-source specs for a ventilator back in 2010, and that his home country of Colombia was in dire trouble. He went directly to WhatsApp, where he proposed the bold project to a group of his colleagues at Techfit’s Medellín headquarters of building an open-source ventilator for Colombia. From there, the effort took on a life of its own. Within the next 24 hours, over 60 people joined the chat, volunteering to help.
The group rapidly expanded beyond Colombia’s tech and biomedical communities to include university faculty, doctors from private labs, and financiers. The majority of these individuals were recruited by Ruta N, the Medellín mayor’s office for tech innovation. Founded in 2009 with the goal of turning Medellín into the Latin American Silicon Valley, Ruta N built a fundraising platform
to finance the research.
Ruta N’s involvement in the project signaled that Colombia’s government and ruling oligarchy were behind it, and the “paisas”- the colloquial term for the inhabitants of Colombia’s largest state, Antioquia, and its capital, Medellín- wanted this done. The paisas are the business leaders of Colombia, and decided that their country’s response to the coronavirus would not devolve into the scrambling chaos they had observed in the United States.
Toro’s plans of building a ventilator also meant creating a supply chain for parts and inventing an entire production line from scratch. They enlisted the Colombian embassies in the U.S., Canada, India, China, and Japan for help sourcing parts that couldn’t be produced domestically.
In honor of the “unique ecosystem” that birthed the project, they branded their venture InnspiraMED—a mash-up of Spanish terms for “innovation,” “inspiration,” and “medicine.”
“It is from Medellín for the world… This effort means we can be recognized for something different than violence. We have changed in the last 20 years,” said Juan Andrés Vásquez, the head of Ruta N.
Invima, Colombia’s FDA, stepped in to ensure compliance with agency rules, but also to clear away unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles. Postobón, the country’s leading soft drink company, quickly donated more than $2 million, while Brinsa, the Morton Salt of Colombia, gave $250,000. Ruta N was only looking for $7 million to underwrite not only the ventilator project, but also an additional three COVID-19 initiatives: to ramp up testing, to develop apps and data tools, and to strengthen hospitals to protect doctors and patients.
Unlike full-feature ventilators (which can be used on both conscious and unconscious patients), the first generation of Colombian machines will work only on those under sedation. Such compromises are necessary, as these devices will hopefully be sold at $1,000 per unit, an enormous cost reduction from the $25,000 Governor Andrew Cuomo recently complained he was being forced to pay per device by the Chinese.
In just two days, Toro formed three ventilator dream teams: one led by his company, one headquartered in the University of Antioquia, and another in a private university, EIA (formerly the Antioquia School of Engineering).
“A little-known fact about Medellín is that it is an important medical and development start-up center… We don’t have any ventilator manufacturing, but we have a very well-trained faculty in mechanical ventilation,” Toro told Vanity Fair
The three teams decided to build three different kinds of ventilators, in hopes of creating at least one would succeed. Meanwhile, new ways of making valves and gauges also had to be invented.
“Neither Colombia’s nor Medellín’s industries have ever made these components. It’s impressive,” Hernandez said.
Toro’s team is using his company’s expertise in 3D printing to create a simpler, lightweight “field ventilator” that can be transported to remote rural locations, which uses a tube adapted from the overhead oxygen masks on airplanes. The University of Antioquia’s ventilator will be produced by Auteco, the country’s largest motorcycle distributor, as well as a software developer.
Thus far, Toro has described his three-week experience designing the ventilator as “magical… For all the time I’ve been alive, Colombians haven’t been able to agree on anything. But right now we have all agreed we have to make mechanical ventilators,” he said.