Editor’s note: Before the coronavirus sent us scrambling to report on the rapid spread of the disease in Hawaii and the effort to contain it, we had launched “Fault Lines,” a yearlong reporting and community engagement project aimed at exploring the social and political disconnects in Hawaii as well as promising examples of people and organizations who were trying to bridge those divides. It feels like a good time to revitalize that project — the virus is exposing deep political and policy differences but it is also showing us a side of Hawaii that we think needs to be highlighted — a community that is coming together to help each other in remarkable ways. This story is a perfect example.
With the state facing a potential shortage of respiratory ventilators needed to treat severe COVID-19 cases, a Hawaii team is developing a new device that can be produced quickly, cheaply and in large quantities for the state.
And it’s sharing information about the device as part of a global effort with dozens of other developers.
The group, which goes by the name Kahanu, already has a prototype of the device and hopes to begin testing Monday with production as soon as possible, said Olin Lagon, an entrepreneur and software engineer who is part of the team.
“It seems like time is not on our side, and we want to make sure if these are needed, we will be ready to go,” said Lagon.
Led by a former Harvard Medical School professor, the Kahanu team includes engineers with experience at tech companies like Google, Apple and Tesla.
The total of COVID-19 cases in Hawaii rose to 285 Thursday, with 27 new cases reported. If cases continue to increase at current rates, there are likely to be more than 300 cases next week. Although many patients recover on their own, some end up in the hospital, attached to ventilators to help them breathe.
The problem is there aren’t enough ventilators available in Hawaii and around the world to treat surging numbers of COVID-19 patients, said Dr. Kai Matthes, the Kahanu project’s lead.
Hawaii has approximately 500 ventilators in the state but could soon need 150 more than that if cases surge over the next two to three weeks as some models indicate they will, said Matthes, an anesthesiologist who was an associate professor of anesthesiology at Harvard Medical School before he came to practice on Maui.
Ventilators are in such short supply nationally that President Donald Trump on Thursday invoked a law created for wartime goods production to help medical device makers obtain supplies needed to make more of the machines.
Kahanu isn’t waiting for the big medical companies to gear up and get devices to Hawaii. The goal is to produce 400 emergency ventilators that can be used in Hawaii if there’s a surge in patients needing them, said Lagon, who is also the founder and chief technology officer of the renewable energy efficiency company Shifted Energy.
In keeping with a spirit of international cooperation among scientists seeking to fight the virus, Kahanu’s team of engineers is letting others use the technology it develops under an open source, creative commons license, Lagon said. That cooperation can help teams avoid engineering dead ends and find quick solutions, he said.
“There are probably 40 teams around the world that are developing ventilators,” he said. “And we didn’t want to reinvent the wheel.”
In fact, Matthes said, Kahanu’s device is modeled on one already developed and approved for use in Spain. The Kahanu team has been adapting the device so it can be made with components readily available in the U.S., Lagon said.
For instance, one prototype uses a motor made for automobile windshield wipers.
To share information quickly, Kahanu has set up a WhatsApp channel that now includes more than 80 engineers from around the world. The channel is an ongoing information stream on a range of topics: legal issues, pathways to regulatory approval, facilities that could be adapted to make parts, and new protective gear not related to respirators. Most important, Lagon said, are updates on design developments.
“What’s important is as teams iterate on the design, they share the information,” he said.
Benedikt Schmitt, an electrical engineering student at the University of Erlangen in Germany, said feedback from the group has greatly assisted the efforts of a team he’s working with.
“You find new ideas and can throw your own ideas in,” he wrote in a WhatsApp message to Civil Beat. “We can learn from the mistakes and successes of the professionals.”
Problems that could take days or weeks to solve can be solved within hours, Lagon said.
For instance, he said, at one point when the Kahanu team was trying to create a component called a carbon dioxide scrubber, it posted its problem on WhatsApp, and another engineer quickly responded with a design for a scrubber.
“We absolutely copied that 100%,” he said.
Such urgency of action defines the team. Matthes, who represents Hawaii on the national Bridge Ventilator Consortium, devised a simple system that could serve as an emergency ventilator and reached out to his network for help developing it. That led him to Lagon, who in turn recruited a team of engineers with ties to Hawaii.
The team includes Jeffrey Hayashida, an MIT-trained engineer who helped develop products for Apple, including ear pods and docks, before joining Google, where he leads teams in the hardware division.
Others include Peter How, a mechanical engineer who led the design of both versions of the Tesla’s Powerwall batteries, and Blair Stultz, the founder of Bear Machinery. That’s a Hawaii-based precision machine shop that has made components for medical devices as well as for companies like Boeing, Teledyne Imaging Sensors, General Dynamics and NASA and the U.S. Navy.
Kahanu isn’t the only team collaborating with others to create a ventilator, Lagon said. But he said he thinks it is the first to reach out so widely.
“What makes us different is we tried to get every team on earth on this channel,” he said. “There may be another effort doing it, but we couldn’t find it.”
So many people working for the common good is inspiring.
“It is beautiful to see,” he said.
Read our previous stories in the “Fault Lines” series and especially check out the Community Scrapbook where we’ve been regularly posting snapshots from around the community of people and organizations helping each other. Send us your photos and stories of neighbors and communities pitching in during this time of uncertainty and social distancing. We’d love to share them in the project and in our Morning Beat newsletter. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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