Covid-19

Meet the South African who helped build a low-cost ventilator in just one month

03 May 2020 - 00:00 By NICKY WILLEMSE
SA-born Marcel Botha helped bring the low-cost Spiro Wave ventilator into existence in just four weeks, to help New York's fight against Covid-19.
SA-born Marcel Botha helped bring the low-cost Spiro Wave ventilator into existence in just four weeks, to help New York's fight against Covid-19.
Image: Supplied

It was a seemingly impossible challenge that Marcel Botha couldn't resist: build a ventilator and do it fast.

The South African is one of the key players behind a bridge ventilator, designed in the US in just one month, that has been approved by that country's Food & Drug Administration. The average time to design and build a ventilator is a year.

At a fraction of the cost of other ventilators, the new product has been hailed in the US media and could help to widen access to treatment as the Covid-19 pandemic spreads, especially in developing countries.

Botha, an entrepreneur and architect who graduated from Nelson Mandela University in Port Elizabeth and later studied at the famed Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), heads a product design, engineering and development firm, 10XBeta, based in New York City, where he now lives.

"Our first batch of products was for New York, but that was just the very first step," Botha, 43, told the Sunday Times this week.

"Our team is focused on building and evolving this product till it becomes a standard piece of medical equipment worldwide so that any country that needs it can have it at scale for a reduced price."

The ventilator, called the Spiro Wave, was designed as a stopgap solution for a looming shortage of ventilators, and received financial backing from the New York City Economic Development Corp (NYCEDC).

New York mayor Bill de Blasio told The New York Times it is an "invaluable tool" and part of the stockpile of medical equipment and supplies the city needs as "insurance against phase 2" of the pandemic.

Priced at $3,300 (about R62,000), the ventilator is an automatic resuscitator which helps less critically ill patients to breathe. If a patient's condition worsens, they still need to be placed on a standard ventilator, which typically costs more than $30,000.

Our team is focused on building and evolving this product till it becomes a standard piece of medical equipment worldwide

"A bridge ventilator is able to sustain a patient and keep them alive for days to weeks at a time, giving [doctors] the basic feedback required to make good clinical decisions in parallel with other equipment in the room," said Botha, who was born in Pretoria.

"It doesn't have the degree of extreme variability or customisation that a large ventilator has, but it's also less than a 10th of the price of these large ventilators."

Weeks before the Covid-19 crisis battered New York, Botha and Scott Cohen, co-founder of a technology centre for researchers and start-ups called New Lab, were approached by Italian business associate Manuel Toscano to take up the ventilator challenge.

"He reached out to us during the crisis in Italy, saying: 'What can you do for Italy?' And, by extension, what can you do for New York and the rest of the world, which is going to be hit just as hard," said Botha.

in numbers

• 20 - The number of days the team took to come up with the final product.

• 3,000 - The number of ventilators the City of New York has commissioned

Taking their inspiration from a basic ventilator designed as a classroom exercise at MIT a decade ago, Botha, Cohen and design and manufacturing associate Charles Boyce orchestrated a widespread collaboration of innovators, scientists, entrepreneurs, engineers, physicians and regulatory experts for the project. The NYCEDC provided a $100,000 research grant and then a $10m agreement to buy 3,000 ventilators.

Working 20-hour days, the team came up with eight different prototypes in the first week, then 30 different versions of these before getting to the final product in 20 days.

"Our team worked at 250% of their normal effort, sleeping four to five hours a night for five weeks.

"Our families did not see us for days, and my wife had to deal with our three little kids [aged one to five] solo during the quarantine," said Botha, who even missed his five-year-old's birthday celebrations.

Though the first 3,000 ventilators are being manufactured for New York City, the next phase will be moving to a larger facility to manufacture a further 40,000, to be rolled out wherever they are needed. The team is also planning to license its design for free.


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