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Are portable ventilators the future?

The creators of the “Umbulizer" think so.

A Boston-based team has started local production on a low-cost, portable ventilator called the Umbulizer (above).
A Boston-based team has started local production on a low-cost, portable ventilator called the Umbulizer (above).Umbulizer

Engineers and scientists nationwide are racing to create alternatives to traditional ventilators, which were in short supply when coronavirus cases surged this spring. One contender is the brainchild of a group of Harvard, MIT, and Boston University graduates: the “Umbulizer.”

A small, white and blue block of metal and plastic, the Umbulizer rhythmically delivers air to patients’ lungs and limbs like a normal ventilator. But it costs less than its hospital-grade counterpart, which can carry a price tag of up to $50,000, or about 10 times more, according to Umbulizer’s founders.

“Nothing is more devastating than not being able to take care of a patient because you don’t have a life-saving resource,” said cofounder Sanchay Gupta, a Harvard Medical School graduate. “The need for the Umbulizer is universal.”

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After drawing from small investments and prize money for years, the startup won $75,000 and a first-place finish in the health and sciences track of the Harvard President’s Innovation Challenge last week. Polaris and General Catalyst also invested in the team in April, as reported by the Globe — mere days before the Food and Drug Administration approved emergency authorization for the device’s production.

Now 250 Umbulizers can be manufactured each week by a local facility, said its founders. (The exact number produced depends on the quantity of orders.)

The Umbulizer team is also talking with additional manufacturers and multiple New England treatment centers looking to stock the device in the near future, said Gupta. BU alumnus and cofounder Shaheer Piracha said production could be ramped up if and when a second wave of coronavirus cases hits.

“Epidemiologists are projecting additional surges, and they’re expecting the need for ventilators once again to rise,” he said. "We are actively working to be able to help support hospitals through that.”

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Traditional ventilators perform more than a dozen functions, many of which are unnecessary to save a life. The Umbulizer does only what it must to keep a patient breathing, its founders explained.

On its face is a small screen that displays patients’ vital signs. A plastic appendage that connects to various breathing tubes pops out of the side. When a patient is in critical condition, the Umbulizer sets off a series of audio and visual alarms.

The team tested the device on scores of randomized intensive care unit patients through a year-long process that ended in late 2019.

The team behind the Umbulizer, including Kenneth Collins, Shaheer Piracha, Sanchay Gupta, and Rohan Jadeja (left to right), at the Harvard innovation labs.
The team behind the Umbulizer, including Kenneth Collins, Shaheer Piracha, Sanchay Gupta, and Rohan Jadeja (left to right), at the Harvard innovation labs. Harvard Innovation Labs

According to an FDA document, the device is intended for “pre-hospital, field hospital, and transport environments, as well as hospital settings where sufficient standard ventilators are not available." Gupta and Piracha said the Umbulizer should be used on low-risk patients in hospitals while more sophisticated devices are reserved for those in critical need.

The team created the Umbulizer three years ago for use in developing countries, where chronic equipment shortages are commonplace. Hospitals in Pakistan, for example, often rely on manual Ambu bags to deliver air to patients. There, the device is already being used in intensive care units, emergency rooms, and ambulances, after a Pakistani military plane picked up a shipment last month.

Once the current public health crisis subsides, Umbulizer’s founders will continue deploying the device both within the state and internationally.

“COVID-19 has really brought the need for portable ventilators to the forefront of people’s minds," said Gupta. "But having affordable and high-quality ventilators — that’s a product that the world has needed for decades before COVID. Even when we get through this wave and future waves of the pandemic, there will still be a need for many, many of these devices.”

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Diti Kohli can be reached at diti.kohli@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @ditikohli_.