Even though she majored in engineering, Beatrix Dalton had no background in designing ventilators. But neither did any other members of SmithVent, a 29-person team of alums and faculty from the engineering program at Smith College competing in an eight-week, international challenge to design a low-cost, viable ventilator for COVID-19 patients.

“We set our initial goal low,” said Dalton, who graduated from Smith in 2019. “We would have been happy improving even one component of a ventilator.”

SmithVent did much better than that: On July 1, the team was announced as the winner of the CoVent-19 Challenge, beating six other finalists from an initial group of 213 entries across 43 countries. A group of anesthesiologists at Massachusetts General Hospital came up with the idea for the Challenge in March, when a surge in coronavirus cases led to concern that the country would run out of ventilators.

The team’s final product, called the SmithVent, is a pneumatic ventilator the size of a toaster oven that costs about $2,500 to assemble. Using a mix of off-the-shelf components and 3D printed parts, the SmithVent team kept the cost to about one-tenth that of traditional ventilators.

“After four weeks, when we submitted our ventilator design, we had learned so much about what ventilators were, how they work, and how to optimize them for COVID-19 patients ... ” Dalton said. “When we learned we were one of the seven finalists, we were more excited to bring our design to life than concerned about our knowledge gaps.”

An independent medical-device firm will now analyze the SmithVent design to ensure it complies with national and international regulatory requirements. If approval is given, the SmithVent team will complete any required modifications before submitting its design to the FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) for further review.

Help for Africa

Through the CoVent-19 Challenge’s partnership with the Nigerian National Agency for Science and Engineering Infrastructure, the SmithVent could also be manufactured in Nigeria and other African countries that may face a ventilator shortage when treating COVID-19 patients.

Although the SmithVent team will not market the ventilator (or, per challenge rules, collect royalties), it will share its designs online in open-source formats and assist organizations that try to build the ventilator.

“Studying images of the design, it certainly doesn’t look all that radical,” wrote Mark Wilson in a July 2 story for Fast Company about the SmithVent. “And in many ways, the design isn’t fundamentally different from any ventilator on the market. What’s groundbreaking is that if you have a little engineering know-how, you could source its parts from shops like Amazon and Adafruit, 3D-print much of the rest, and build it yourself for $2,500.”

Dalton said she was involved in several aspects of the SmithVent team’s design.

“I wore many hats throughout the course of the project,” she said. “In the first round, I was on the medical research team, liaising with medical professionals and reading ISO [International Organization for Standardization] and IEC [International Electrotechnical Commission] standards to learn about performance requirements for ventilators.

“In the second round, I was on the system requirements and standards team, tasked with verifying the system requirements given by the competition and determined by our team,” Dalton added. “This included physical testing of the ventilator, which took many hours to prepare for and nearly 10 hours itself. I also am a member of our social media team and I helped with formatting and finalizing our ultimate submission.

Working after work

“Overall, I have no idea how many hours I spent on the project. The rhythm I settled into was ending my day job at 6 p.m. and then switching immediately to working on the ventilator until I went to bed, before waking up the next day and doing it all over again.”

Dalton learned about the CoVent Challenge via an email from Susannah Howe, a professor at Smith College who was one of SmithVent’s co-leaders.

“In early April, she sent an email out to the Smith College Picker Engineering Program alums asking if anyone was interested in working with her,” Dalton said. “I filled out an initial on-boarding form and, a few days later, attended a kickoff meeting and we were off. The first round of the competition ended May 1, so we started working almost immediately.”

Dalton said working online presented more challenges as the project progressed.

“For the first round, when doing conceptual design, working remotely was fine,” she said. “In the second round, however, when we were building the physical ventilator prototype, working remotely was more challenging.

“Smith allowed us to use the Center for Design Fabrication on campus to build the ventilator, but there were only four team members approved to go in, and they often could not work simultaneously to abide by social distancing guidelines,” Dalton added. “This meant that while these team members were in the lab, often other team members called in via Zoom to support the lab work, share instructions, and take notes. The only personal obstacle I faced with remote work was spotty internet connection, which sometimes made video conferencing difficult.”

Virtual celebrations

After being named as one of the seven finalists in mid-May, the SmithVent team presented its design to the CoVent-19 Challenge judges in late June and was chosen as the first-place finisher last Wednesday.

“We had multiple virtual celebrations,” Dalton said. “The first focused on gratitude: Each team member prepared a small note for another team member thanking them for their work on the competition, and then all team members had the opportunity to write an additional note for each person. The second celebration was purely for fun: We played charades, Jeopardy, and a song-guessing quiz.”

“The team has been very good at incorporating breaks (like Jeopardy, Pictionary, or mini-parties) throughout the challenge — this has allowed us all to get to know each other on personal levels and not just professional levels,” Dalton added. “I am going to miss all of my team members now that this is over.”