"We will make ventilators if there is a shortage," Elon Musk offered on Twitter yesterday. In Italy that day has already come. For almost a week now health care professionals in the European country hardest hit by coronavirus have been forced to choose which patients should receive life-saving care and which must do without because the need for respirators far outstrips supply.
And then, a few days ago at one hospital in Brescia in northern Italy things got horribly worse. The hospital ran out of a crucial (and expensive) valve that's required to keep their respirators functioning. The original equipment manufacturer couldn't supply more. Luckily, a local Elon Musk was at hand in the form of a pair of heroic small businesses.
Small business owners to the rescue
"Italian journalist Nunzia Vallini put the hospital in touch with Isinnova chief executive Cristian Fracassi after discovering the original supplier was unable to supply new valves quickly," the BBC reports.
After the original supplier of the crucial part couldn't hand over the valve's design (there is some dispute over whether they refused or were constrained by regulations), Fracassi and a mechanical engineer Alessandro Romaioli raced to the hospital to inspect the valve themselves. Three hours later, they returned with a working prototype.
"The pair then joined forces with Lonati, another local 3-D-printer company to meet the demand, since Isinnova has six printers and the devices take about an hour each to print," the BBC story continues. The cost of the usually multi-thousand dollar valve (it's exact price is also being disputed by the manufacturer) was now around a dollar.
Lives were saved and the world got a heart-warming story in dark times thanks to the generosity and competence of a few community-minded small business owners.
Other opportunities to be a hero
As part of a deeper dive into the technical challenges and how the business owners overcame them, our sister site Fast Company noted that similar efforts to put the ingenuity of entreprenerus and technologists to use are afoot here in the U.S too.
"Gerrit Coetzee, a San Francisco-based design engineer, put out a call on the blog Hackaday for designers and engineers to design an open-source ventilator, which he describes as 'the device that becomes the decider between life and death' for COVID-19 patients, and which are in short supply," notes the article.
Meanwhile, American doctors have been tweting requests to the startup community to build other tools that would help them save lives.
As a Pathologist who follows COVID-19 issues closely from a medical perspective, I have to confess that I have learned far more from Facebook, Twitter, and WeChat than from peer-reviewed and even pre-pub medical research literature, due to time lag and international borders. https://t.co/7y1uTLovjQ-- Simon Boyi Chen (@simonbchen) March 17, 2020
Investors such as Sam Altman have offered to fund startups working on Covid-19 response.
The takeaway here is that opportunities for founders, entrepreneurs, and technologists to aid their communities during this global crisis are out there, so keep your ear for the ground for ways to help. We need all the heroes we can get right about now.