A Winnipeg company is about to play a pivotal role in what could become Canada’s response to a life-or-death need for ventilators to treat the spiking number of COVID-19 patients across the country.
A device called the Winnipeg Ventilator, which was designed and built 40 years ago by Dr. Magdy Younes, has been selected by Next Generation Manufacturing Supercluster (NGen), Canada’s advanced manufacturing supercluster that has been charged with mobilizing a rapid response to Canada’s COVID-19 medical equipment needs.
It is in the process of being redesigned as a pandemic ventilator that could be manufactured on a large-scale basis quickly and relatively inexpensively.
Younes is the scientific founder and largest shareholder of a Winnipeg company called Cerebra Health Inc. His partner in that company, Earl Gardiner, said, "The credit for all this goes to Dr. Younes. He invented a ventilator that is possibly the most widely used ventilator in the world."
Robbie MacLeod, NGen’s director of strategic partnerships and programs, said, "The objective of this project is the rapid definition and open source delivery… for a Health Canada-approved, low cost, and easy-to-operate ventilator design. The Winnipeg Ventilator design is a leading contender for production launch in Canada."
Although the design has been around for a long time — the technology was licensed and used for many years in thousands of commercially manufactured ventilators by Puritan Bennett — it is being redesigned in a stripped-down, simplified form but with all the functionality of an intensive-care-unit ventilator.
Younes, who is 80 years old, built about 30 of the original Winnipeg Ventilators in a Winnipeg machine shop called Metric Machine, that were used for research and treatment of some patients but never received regulatory approval.
"I have one sitting in the basement for the last 20 years gathering dust. It was initially used 30 years ago. After that, I kept it here as a museum piece," he said.
One of the crucial features of the design is that it can be made using off-the-shelf components, something that Younes said was accomplished with the help of his original engineer partner.
"He was very cost-conscious," he said.
Younes is recognized around the world as a leading expert in the field. Over the years, royalties from Puritan Bennett, which was acquired by Medtronic, generated millions of dollars in revenue for the University of Manitoba (and for Younes).
Its patent recently expired and although anyone could legally reverse-engineer the technology, the expertise of Younes and Cerebra will be crucial to redesign the device for the requirements of the pandemic environment.
Among other things, it does not rely on compressed air to operate, making the design easier to use in remote locations and field hospitals.
Dawson Reimer, the CEO of Cerebra, said, "Regardless of the bottom line, this is an unbelievable opportunity for us to help Canadians. Magdy is a bona fide world expert on ventilators. I have been with him at Harvard University being grilled by their top respiratory expert scientists on how the lung functions and how medical devices work with that."
Cerebra is working with NGen’s consortium of companies from across the country, led by Starfish Medical, a Victoria company that designs medical equipment for companies around the world.
Led by Starfish and backed by millions of dollars of federal government resources, the consortium has come up with a manufacturable design for the Winnipeg Ventilator in just three and half weeks.
There is no word yet on cost or volume or where the equipment will be made.
"If we end up in a major crisis, this thing can be produced at high volumes. That is what it is designed for," Reimer said.
As ventilator manufacturing has been ramped up around the world, supply-chain bottlenecks are stalling production.
"The Winnipeg Ventilator design has proven technology… that could lead to rapid launch through alternate supply chains in Canada," MacLeod said.
He said there are a number of projects in NGen’s COVID-19 response stream, including vaccines, personal protection equipment, diagnostic tests, sanitizing chemicals and equipment.
"This ventilator accelerator project is crucial in Canada’s COVID-19 response, but will be one piece of a large-scale effort to fund many projects," he said.
Although there is no guarantee the final design will work out, Reimer said, "I don’t see a scenario where the (federal government) does not follow through and purchase some. Significant volumes are being discussed. We expect Canada will place an order. We just don’t know the number."
Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.
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Updated on Friday, April 3, 2020 at 2:08 PM CDT: Photo added.
April 9, 2020 at 10:39 AM: Corrects name to Metric Machine