URBANA — Work began two months ago at the University of Illinois on an emergency ventilator to treat COVID-19 patients. Now, the new design has found a manufacturer.
U of I mechanical engineering professor Bill King oversaw the team that designed — and tested prototypes — of the Illinois Rapidvent ventilator, all in about three weeks.
Several companies have inquired about the device, which the U of I is licensing for manufacture on a no-cost, non-exclusive basis. But King says the first to follow through was Belkin, owned by tech giant Foxconn, through its subsidiary Foxconn Interconnect Technology or FIT.
King said FIT has a prior relationship with the university. (FIT’s chairman and CEO, Sidney Lu, is a University of Illinois alumnus and major donor).
“And that’s how we all got connected,” said King. “Belkin was very interested in transferring the technology over and scaling it up to be able to produce emergency ventilators at scale.”
In a news release, Belkin says its version of the Illinois Rapidvent ventilator will be called the FlexVent. In its proposal to the FDA, Belkin says the device “will be used as a single-use, emergency ventilator that can provide constant-flow pressure-cycled ventilation automatically to patients in respiratory distress.” The ventilator is gas-operated, meaning it is powered by the pressurized air or oxygen flowing through it, and does not require an outside power source.
Belkin’s products have focused on the consumer electronics market up to now. But company CEO and founder Chet Pipkin said in the news release that their 2018 merger with FIT gave them access to greater manufacturing assets, along with a long-term strategy to expand into new markets, including medical equipment.
“With a global pandemic underway, we quickly realigned our assets to serve the healthcare community,” said Pipkin, “and we were able to adapt to identify one of the most pressing needs facing the healthcare community: ventilators.”
King oversaw a team of about 50 engineers, physicians and designers from the U of I’s Grainger College of Engineering, its Carle Illinois College of Medicine, which focuses on engineering applications in medicine and has ties to Urbana-based healthcare provider Carle Health. He says the collaboration across disciplines was a first for many of those involved.
“A lot of us, I think, are going to keep working together in this way,” says King. “We’re very excited to find new opportunities for engineers and physicians to work together. There’s no shortage of problems in the world that need groups like this to work on them.”
Belkin’s FlexVent emergency ventilator still needs FDA approval before it can be marketed. King says Belkin has applied for Emergency Use Authorization from the FDA, and is optimistic the ventilator could win approval in a matter of weeks.