Irish engineers and doctors join forces in the face of Covid-19

19 Mar 2020

Image: © santypan/

We spoke to Colin Keogh of the Open Source Ventilator project, which is trying to develop an accessible and essential piece of medical equipment for treating patients with severe cases of Covid-19.

Last Thursday (12 March), much of Ireland was turned upside down after the Government shut schools across the country and advised anybody who can work from home to do so in a bid to slow the spread of Covid-19. While some turned to stocking up on toilet paper and hand sanitiser, others began looking to solve problems.

In recent weeks, we have seen innovators offer solutions and ideas to ease the impact that coronavirus could have in Ireland and around the world. For instance, Dr Conor McGinn’s Dublin-based start-up Akara Robotics has begun the rapid development of robots that could sterilise hospitals using UV light.

Another group that’s working to solve a challenge that has arisen in light of the Covid-19 outbreak is the Open Source Ventilator group. The team acknowledged the “severe shortage” of ventilators around the globe to treat patients, and is now looking to develop easy-to-assemble, low-cost ventilators using 3D printing.

We spoke to Colin Keogh, a Dublin-based engineer who is working with Conall Laverty and David Pollard to organise the open-source project in Ireland, inviting engineers, designers and medical professionals to generate and validate ideas for open-source designs of ventilators that can be produced at scale to aid the treatment of Covid-19 patients.

So far, the team has been “blown away by the support”, according to Keogh, who said the current global health crisis is “showing how willing people are to row in behind each other for the greater good and contribute their skills”.

The mission

Keogh runs a 3D printing non-profit that regularly does overseas development with 3D printers, so he has experience working on distributed contributor projects such as this one. He explained how he ended up behind the Open Source Ventilator project.

“A friend of mine tagged me in a Facebook post on Thursday from a group that was set up in the US on Facebook to look at designing open-source ventilators,” he said.

“I joined the group, I helped them to promote it, and over the last couple of days, there’s been explosions of people online – technical people, doctors, people in sciences – that are willing to contribute to developing the solutions and interventions that we need.

“With the PR push that I gave it, a load of people in Ireland approached me telling me they were doing similar things. We’ve been working with groups building discord servers for tracing patient contact and providing support to people in self-isolation. From that, myself and Conall Laverty, who runs, and David Pollard who works for Rehab Group, the three of us came together.”

‘The goal is that we’ll never have to use this thing’

With Laverty and Pollard, Keogh has set up an Ireland-based team focused on designing an open-source ventilator for the emergencies in which it could be required. “We’ve been building out that team and we’ve been very public about it and we’ve put out a call for ideas, solutions and contributors,” he added.

“We’ve been working with a group of designers in Canada who are designing some of the best open-source ventilator systems that you could imagine, then we’ve been building people around that and community sports.

“We’ve been building, working and discussing with maker spaces to try and access 3D printing systems just so we can embark on this really rapid, iterative design process so we can prototype these low-cost ventilators and hopefully try to get them validated with the HSE next week.”

Engaging with the HSE

Once it became apparent that the Covid-19 pandemic was going to have a serious impact on Ireland, Keogh and the team began to engage with the HSE.

“We had some discussions with the HSE last week about availability and what they need,” he said. “We started the project as a whole to look at emergency situations. There are situations where people will need emergency ventilators. We’re hopeful we won’t need them in Ireland, but an awful lot of countries around the world won’t be that lucky.

“When we started the project, the HSE said they’re interested and want to keep in touch. If we can do tests next week, we will. We’ve had interactions with them and they’ve been excellent so far. They’re snowed under trying to deal with this whole thing but they have been excellent support for us so far.”

At the moment, there is a lot of concern about medical devices, products and treatments being rushed to market in response to Covid-19. With the Open Source Ventilator, which could eventually be built anywhere and by anyone, Keogh said the group is taking these kinds of concerns into consideration.

“The goal is that we’ll never have to use this thing,” he said. “We are putting all of the focus on the medical professionals in our group, the anaesthesiologists, the doctors, the nurses, the people in the group who work in the medical profession every single day. They are leading the safety elements, all of the design, everything we come up with goes through them first.

“We don’t want to design something that has any potential to harm anybody or even get in the way or complicate medical processes. So, we are building in a lot of validation elements at the minute. We’ve developed the concepts as a group, we will manufacture them, prototype them and test them.

“We are going to liaise with the HSE and we will work with health services to get them tested and validated before we take it any further. Safety and health, as well as usefulness, are the top priorities.”

Validation under emergency circumstances

Validating a medical device can be a long and complicated process, and is not something that is typically done within a few weeks, or even within a few months.

But Keogh said this may be different under the current circumstances. “A normal medical device certification process takes years and is very tightly controlled and regulated. It’s a serious process. In this instance, nobody knows how you validate something that’s required so urgently at such high volume.”

Despite that, the Open Source Ventilator group is still working with doctors, medical professionals and people who have worked in the medical device industry for decades to develop the product as though it was going to be a certified medical device. “This is on the basis of keeping everything above board, keeping the logs in check and making the validation process easier,” Keogh added.

“If these devices are needed in an emergency, at least we’ve started the process of getting them validated properly, so if regulations need to be lifted to get them made in an emergency, we’re in the best position we can possibly be in to make something safe and healthy.”

Overall, Keogh said it’s important to keep open source at the very core of this project. It’s being built and designed by volunteers who want to make the finished product as open source and manufacturable “as humanly possible”, he added.

Kelly Earley was a journalist with Silicon Republic