Runway's fabrication lab in Ballarat has been playing a part in an exciting ventilator project in response to the COVID19 pandemic. Our team members, @Nichola S and @Jo R, interviewed Michael Poulton, CEO of Committee for Ballarat, to find out more about how and why a regional city pulled together to produce a hospital grade ventilator.
Michael was instrumental in getting the GeVentor ball rolling: The team behind this project represents a collaboration between Gekko Systems, Committee For Ballarat, local anaesthetists, local doctors, Eurekative, and Runway – all coming together for a common goal: to design and produce a ventilator that can be quickly and easily manufactured here for use in hospitals. He also has some predictions for what the post COVID world will look like.
🤔 (And if you're wondering who Pete is - he's the captain of the Runway ship)🛳️ This interview was recorded on May 15th, 2020 If you'd like to know more about our FabLab, head to https://runwayhq.co/ballarat/fab-lab/
How did you come to be involved in this project?
Committee for Ballarat’s role started with the ventilator project one Sunday afternoon when I was talking to a very good mate of mine who’s the head of ICU at Ballarat Base Hospital. This is now some weeks ago, and the concern at that stage was that the health system is going to be overrun. We haven’t got access to enough equipment; ventilators is the critical part of that equipment. We’re at the end of the supply chain - the rest of the world needs them. We’re gonna be in strife! So Monday morning I picked up the phone to Elizabeth and Sandy Lewis-Gray to say “look there’s this possibility here that we’re going to be in a bit of strife with ventilators. Who do you know around town who might be able to turn their attention to it?” and Sandy straight away said “yeah I think I can. Leave it with me for a couple of days” I didn’t think too much about it.
That was Monday morning.
Thursday afternoon Elizabeth rings me and says “look um Sandy’s got a working prototype we’d like you to come out and have a look at it.”.
I said “what do you mean?”
“He’s been tinkering around in the shed and he thinks he can make it work with adapting some of the technologies that we’ve used as part of our jig work 20 years ago.”
“Wow okay, so let’s go out and have a look”
And they were excited - clearly a very rudimentary model meant that they had a lot of work to do, and I offered our role to say look we can help to connect to you with various people around the region and the state potentially to develop this further.
So the genesis really was a conversation about:
We think we’re going to be overrun.
We don’t think we don’t have enough equipment.
How might we get more?
And Sandy saying, “let me have a crack at seeing what I can do”, and hence here we are.
You saw a potentially urgent need for more ventilators here in Ballarat - did this urgency throw up many challenges? How did you deal with them?
The urgency in the early days was really critical, and what we knew was going to be the stumbling block was TGA (Theraputic Goods Association) approval. So really quickly we had to get on to how you navigate the TGA processes (and there’s a whole range of fortunate stories that come out of innovation isn’t there), but it was fortuitous that there was a guy from Perth whose girlfriend lives in Ballarat. He’d been here visiting, and he couldn’t get back to Perth because flights were being cancelled. It just so happened he works as a consultant in Perth for medical tech companies to navigate TGA processes. He saw on LinkedIn a post that Elizabeth Lewis-Gray had put up saying “here’s some things they’re thinking about. Sandy’s been playing around in the shed. This is what it looks like - who can help?”. And this guy literally responded to the post on LinkedIn and said, “well actually I work in this space. I’m here for a couple of weeks; how can I help?”.
That was, I think, the Thursday before Easter. Good Friday we pulled together a team of the Gekko engineers, together with Sandy, Elizabeth, and Jack from from Perth to say, “okay, what does TGA approval look like? What do we need to do urgently to try and put ourselves on the map in this regard?”.
And that’s kind of how it started; it really was as simple as that. But the urgency was critical because firstly we had to try and find some government funding, and to do that we needed some support funding from the community. And secondly we knew that the bureaucracy of TGA was pretty substantial, so you have to get onto that from the get-go. So state government jumping on board to say “yeah look we think we can find some money for you”. Some fantastic community benefactors who said “we love the idea of this - let’s see what can happen out of it”. And then our TGA connection who was, again - just happened to be in Ballarat at the time.
Really critical with this is that Sandy had always recognized that he had a level of knowledge around the technical elements of what a ventilator did. We needed to be able to access specialist knowledge in a medical sense (and and I can talk about that later), but the other part was investigating how you build this now, that doesn’t rely on having to source supply from overseas - i.e. what can you find off the shelf? And if it’s not available off the shelf, how do you make it? The answer is 3D printing - hey, there’s a 3D printer here in Ballarat at Runway - there’s some expertise down there. Let’s utilise that to see - particularly in terms of the prototyping - how might we use the services of Runway to assist in some of that development work.
So the design work was happening really quickly, but there was a sense of ‘well you can’t go and get parts (or componentry) from overseas unless you’ve got access to it here - how do we access local partnerships?’ and hence the Runway one was a pretty important one.
I actually think that the benefit of the ventilator project is not going to necessarily be a thousand, a hundred, ten thousand ventilators. I think the benefit of it will be that you can innovate in a way that collaborates with whole range of other organizations. Do it quickly, and turn your mind to something else.
So, could Ballarat become a hub for medical technology? Absolutely! So you can show that you can move really quickly with collaborative thinking and problem-solving approaches. And that doesn’t happen if you just say, “look we’re good at making these widgets, and that’s what we do. We make this widget.” You know, it happens when you sort of put aside that model and say, “let’s think about what we can solve, and how we can do it, and who do we need to involve to get that happening” which is the collaborative workspace that Runway is, so I think the things are really closely connected.
Yeah, yeah, absolutely It’s such a beautiful example of that - that we all need to, as a species - really move beyond what we do know, and trust that others know things that we don’t know and that’s okay. And that that actually builds on on the success of everything that we do. We can be better when we do it together, and not to - not to quote Pete* in here, but I mean Pete’s always saying a rising tide floats all boats. Like that’s our motto - and I think that the ventilator is a perfect example of that: of the community working together. Comes to great, you know, great things.
Yeah, absolutely and again with a ventilator as an example, that there was real skepticism at the bureaucracy in state government about whether these guys were capable of doing that. It was almost like, “we’ll throw you a little bit of money and say good luck to you”. But they’ve taken that on board and said, “no, let’s prove that we can do things differently. So just because we’re not a medical tech company doesn’t mean we can’t. Just because we haven’t been normal procurement chain doesn’t mean that we can’t deliver on this stuff, and we’ll do it with collaborative problem-solving and and really innovative design”.
And there’s nothing like someone telling you you can’t do something to make sure you do a really good job of it!
Do you have any other examples of local businesses that are innovating?
Look, innovation in Ballarat has been a really interesting thing to see over this course of the last couple of months and there’s some great examples of which Gekko and it’s partnerships has been one. The other one that’s really interesting is Haymes Paint, who have turned their skills to developing hand sanitisers to meet the demand that was there, and are very quickly (really literally a week) being able to turn out hand sanitisers.
Deutsche Mowers - a great family-owned business here in Ballarat for generations - have produced I think it’s something like two thousand beds for the hospital network, and they’re now looking to get a contract into the US to supply the US with hospital beds.
On a different - but very similar in terms of this innovation - if you look at some of our hospitality industries and what they’ve done to turn their their attention towards dealing in a COVID environment. One of which is what’s called Eat Drink West which was about sourcing the wonderful produce that was being grown in the region that typically would have had outlets through restaurants and events into take-home boxes for people. Now, whilst that’s not necessarily innovative, what we saw was that the Ballarat community had very little understanding of where local produce was being produced, so this ability to take to market from the paddock is really important.
So you know, Deutsche mowers - really great story. Haymes Paint - great story. Gekko Systems great story. You know, they’re the sort of things that if you can enable innovation with really good leadership, and where it’s required some regulatory framework and potentially some government support, then a whole range of things can happen. I think the future has to look at what the 21st century solutions are going to be, and we have to resign 20th century thinking to history.
I’ll try to put some meat on the bones of that; if I think about the way we get around our cities - the connectivity we have between cities, and within a city - that a car has been our staple. A car has meant roads. A car has meant car parking. A car has meant congestion. A car has meant pollution. I think that’s one of the innovations we have to leave behind. Now what it means is; we’re not going to not have cars, but I think we have to look at ways of being able to allow cities to grow (in terms of population) without relying so heavily on the ways we have done things. And that is: everybody has a car, and gets in it, and drives. So if I think about that in terms of population settlement if we don’t rely on the car, if we have great interconnectivity with mass transport - and I understand that the difficulties that right now in terms of the COVID environment - but assuming we get over that, and we will. Moving people quickly en masse particularly when they don’t need to go to an office every day for the same purposes at the same hours - I think opens up enormous opportunities for different ways of getting around and connecting between our cities. So the Runway model of a shared workspace that I might use two, or three, or four times a week, but through the rest of the week that I can actually work flexibly from wherever that might be - means that I don’t need to get in a car and drive it to the office the same way every day at the same time That’s the 20th century model - we need to move beyond that.
So, mass transport, flexible hours of work, flexible ways of being able to work, collaborations more so than conglomerations. That’s the sort of scenario I think that we have to look at if we’re going to be able to sustain population growth and maintain liveable cities. And at the core of this, I think, is that the notion of a liveable city we are growing, we have to grow, we’ll continue to grow, but we can’t grow exponentially unless we look at ways of doing different things about how we get around, and how we work, and how we live.
*Peter Dostis (Runway CEO)
Watch the ABC Landline story about the GeVentor here: https://www.abc.net.au/landline/regional-ingenuity:-a-regional-company-makes-life/12256262
Find out more about the Committee for Ballarat here: http://www.committeeforballarat.com
Find out more about Gekko Systems (Sandy and Elizabeth who designed the GeVentor) here: https://www.gekkos.com/node/741