The Ventilator Project book review: A riveting story of the invention of world-class ventilator during Covid lockdown

Indian science and technology institutions are commonly perceived as ivory towers being pampered at taxpayers’ cost. But the Covid-19 pandemic proved critics wrong, with the scientific community rising to the occasion and, almost overnight, developing indigenous diagnostic kits, PPEs, nano-fibre-based masks, naso-pharyngeal swabs, sanitizers and ventilators of a global standard, and having these manufactured, largely, by start-ups or small companies, without compromising on the quality.

The Ventilator Project, by Srikant Sastri and Amitabha Bandyopadhyay, is a riveting story of how an Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)-Kanpur consortium invented and manufactured a world-class ventilator in just 90 days. On March 16, 2020, when the country recorded 60 cases of Covid-19, Prime Minister Modi announced a Covid-19 Solution Challenge. Professor Bandyopadhyay of IIT-Kanpur, headed by its dynamic Director, Abhay Karandikar, responded by sending out the challenge to all IIT-Kanpur-incubated start-ups.

The Ventilator Project book review: A riveting story of the invention of world-class ventilator during Covid lockdown

Amongst other proposals that were received, was a blueprint for a ventilator, by Nocca Robotics, the brainchild of two graduates from the 2016 batch of IIT-Kanpur. Ventilators were the desperate need of the hour; so, Start-up Incubation and Innovation Centre (SIIC) of IIT-Kanpur quickly put together a task force to help Nocca’s two founders, Nikhil Kurele and Harshit Rathore, to focus, undistracted, on designing an ICU ventilator, that had both, volume and pressure control modes, fine-tuned for Covid-19 patients. Two other IIT-K alumni, Abhishek Kulkarni and Tushar Agarwal, stuck in Kurele and Rathore’s Pune flat due to the lockdown, were a godsend and contributed their skills to designing the electronic circuits and mechanical aspects of the device.

The energy and innovative ideas of these youngsters, all from small towns, was avidly supported by experienced mentors, Sastri, a board member at several incubators, Bandyopadhyay, and a network of IIT-K alumni who reached out to doctors, corporate honchos, engineers, fund-raisers et al, to get invaluable guidance on what was needed in hospitals, convincing doctors into using a home-grown product in their war against Covid-19, and procuring finance. From sourcing high-quality components and a reliable manufacturer to moving away from China-dependency, the task force succeeded in getting workable, time-bound processes in place, despite the lockdown-imposed restrictions. Apart from bright, IIT brains from across the world pitching in passionately, several individuals like Dr. VijayRaghavan, Principal Scientific Adviser to the government, and bodies like the Indian High Commission, Singapore helped to hasten the processes, at critical moments.

However, there were stumbling blocks like the government-owned HLL Lifecare Limited that was asked to procure ventilators, centrally, for distribution to the states. HLL’s tender included vague stipulations like a certification from a reputed national or international agency though there was no agency in India accredited to certify ventilators! Approaching international agencies would have delayed Nocca’s project by almost a year. That HLL’s goal posts kept changing didn’t make matters any easier.

Nor did it help when the enemy everyone was battling struck the inventors. Undeterred, the quarantined youngsters continued to brainstorm with the global network of specialists and mentors, through ninety-minute, daily Zoom meetings, that were at the core of their collaborative effort.

How the task force overcame obstacles, and kept their enthusiasm going, makes The Ventilator Project an inspirational narrative for all those hoping to navigate India’s choppy waters to invent and manufacture high-quality medical equipment. Importantly, it shows how to bridge the gap between science-and-technology teams and industry.

Now, if only government authorities would dust away the cobwebs of stodgy, impractical regulations, the impetus, provided, ironically by a pandemic, could be sustained in not only making India atmanirbhar, but making it the hub of global manufacturing of reliable, cost-effective medical equipment, as well.

Book: The Ventilator Project

Author: Srikant Sastri, Amitabha Bandyopadhyay

Publisher: Macmillan

Pages: 248; Price: Rs 599

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