Oct. 7, 2021

UCalgary collaboration builds on innovative, award-winning ventilator device

Low-cost machine can provide personalized oxygen for up to four patients
Jihyun Lee (left) and Steven Roy (right) watch over the work being done by students Mitchell Weber and Max Kim. Kelly Johnston, Cumming School of Medicine

Think of it as an electrical power bar for oxygen with the potential to save lives.

The Valence InVent Xtend allows a single ventilator to safely provide air for up to four patients, with the capability of personalized and real-time modifications.

The device was invented by Dr. Steven Roy, MD, a critical care medicine fellow at the University of Calgary and founder of the startup Convergence Medical Sciences.

He started working on prototypes of a split ventilator in his garage after ventilator shortages were first reported during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There were times when I would be on-call overnight and working a 24-hour shift, then go home and have a nap, then go work on this device,” Roy says.

Building on an idea

The pandemic exposed many jurisdictions to a problem with their ventilators — while they had ventilators stockpiled, they hadn’t been maintained and brought back into service, so they weren’t usable.

Roy wanted to build something that required little to no maintenance and was cost effective, so he teamed up Exergy Solutions to create a functional 3D-printed model.

He also enlisted the help of University of Calgary engineer Dr. Jihyun Lee, PhD, and intensive care doctor Dr. Paul McBeth, MD.

“The University of Calgary was an easy place to find others to collaborate,” Roy says. “I was looking for someone to study the system with me and to characterize how the system works from a physics and engineering point of view.”

A multi-disciplinary approach

An assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering at the Schulich School of Engineering, Lee’s research has been focused on smart and sustainable mechatronics systems.

“Our role is to monitor the aerodynamics of the system,” she says. “For example, do the patients have different lung compliance, can we conjure each of them and how their aerodynamics go in, and how their lungs behave and react with the ventilator.”

McBeth, who is a clinical associate professor in the Departments of Surgery and Critical Care Medicine in the Cumming School of Medicine, believes the multi-disciplinary approach taken has been a critical asset.

It bridges the gaps between engineering and medicine. We’re using engineering techniques to really solve an important clinical problem.

McBeth is also no stranger to the engineering world, having graduated from Schulich with a BSc in mechanical engineering in 1999, then getting his MD in 2007. He also holds an adjunct position in the Department of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering.

This approach between engineering and medicine is an example of the cross-faculty biomedical engineering work occurring throughout the university.

Everyone comes together

Throughout the process, others were able to bring their expertise to the table to refine the design.

“It was really unique to be able to see that opportunity for people to come together with different skill sets and solve a problem that really was identified to be a need for the entire community,” McBeth says.

Even students were able to capitalize on the opportunity.

“I tried to recruit other graduate students to supervise and train them to be involved in this project,” Lee says. “Through this, they learned how to implement their knowledge into real-world applications.”

Roy is impressed with how things came together so quickly.

“I’m happy to say that we were able to make something that works and is able to improve patient care.”

A rewarding experience

It didn’t take long for the world to start noticing the work happening around the University of Calgary.

Convergence Medical Sciences, along with Exergy Solutions, was recognized with an International Red Dot Design Award in June. More recently, they received a bronze International Design Excellence Award from the Industrial Designers Society of America.

Roy says while the device was made during the pandemic, it will be useful in any future health emergency after being licensed by Health Canada under the COVID-19 Interim Order.

It will be more affordable as well, as the invention costs about $50 per patient as compared to the $70,000 price tag for a ventilator.

“It’s exciting to be able to put the device into the hands of clinicians and hopefully save some lives,” Roy says.