Extraordinary machine: Smith College team takes top place in ventilator design competition

  • Astrid Landeau, a 2015 Smith College alumna and project manager for the SmithVent project, which she co-led.  CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Members of the SmithVent team meet remotely over Zoom. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • A SmithVent prototype monitor. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Components of a SmithVent prototype. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Susannah Howe, director of the Smith College Design Clinic and a senior lecturer in engineering, works on the SmithVent prototype. Howe was also a co-leader of the project. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • A Smithvent prototype ventilator. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • The SmithVent team, which was composed of faculty, alums, staff and a then-student. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Susannah Howe, director of the Smith College Design Clinic and a senior lecturer in engineering, displays the SmithVent prototype with her husband, Nicholas Howe, a professor of computer science at Smith College who also worked on the project. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 7/7/2020 1:08:13 PM

NORTHAMPTON — A team of Smith College faculty, staff and alums took first place last week in an international competition to design a ventilator tailored to treating COVID-19 patients.

The Smith team’s open-source design was up against over 200 submissions in the CoVent-19 Challenge, which called upon engineers to create a rapidly deployable mechanical ventilator — a machine in high demand amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The competition, created by Massachusetts General Hospital residents, drew entries from 43 countries.

The SmithVent team, co-led by Susannah Howe, director of the college’s Design Clinic and a senior lecturer in engineering, and Astrid Landeau, a class of 2015 alumna and project manager based in Canada, spent about two months designing and creating a functioning prototype of the machine — a “very rapid timeline” for such a project, Howe said. 

Even a medical company with a team composed entirely of experts could still take nine to 12 months to complete a similar effort, Landeau said — and while all team members had their own expertise, not all had worked with medical technology.

“As crunched as our timeline was, we also had a person who didn’t even know what a ventilator was coming into this, so that makes it even more remarkable,” Landeau said.

Howe teaches a Design Clinic capstone course in which students spend two semesters working on a project addressing a real-world problem. Nearly all of the alums who participated in the project had taken that course, though participants came from a broad range of professional backgrounds, including teaching, real estate and medicine.

After reaching out to the college’s engineering program about the competition on a Friday, Howe said that she had around 30 people interested that Sunday.

“It was clear to me that people were really interested in ways they could help, ways they could work together, and having something that felt really meaningful at this time,” Howe said.

Howe and Landeau believe that their team’s design stood out for going beyond competition requirements by presenting a highly documented work process to assist in replicating the design; putting a heavy focus on usability for health care professionals; and creating components of the machine tailored specifically to treating conditions associated with COVID-19.

One aspect of the design is a focus on pressure support, which allows patients to partially breathe on their own while assisted by the ventilator. While ventilated COVID-19 patients do need help breathing, they do not always need to have the machine do all of their breathing, Howe said, and these settings also allow easier weaning from the ventilator.

While all team members were connected to Smith, they are now scattered across the country, as well as in Canada and Germany. To make the project a success, Landeau said, the team needed a system catered to people working on a largely remote basis, many of whom were in different time zones, with varying levels of time and experience to contribute. They ultimately developed a system allowing for both synchronous and asynchronous communication and task work.

When it came time to assemble the prototype, four team members were allowed in the on-campus design center, with the rest of the team joining in remotely.

The invention will require more testing and regulation approval before it can be used by medical professionals, which could take six months to a year.

The win “was huge for our team,” Landeau said. “It was something in round one that we never really thought would happen.” By round two, she noted, “we started realizing, oh, OK, we can win this. Let’s really aim towards that. And that was kind of one of our stretch targets.”

But ultimately, winning was “the cherry on top” of the team’s mission to create a design that can be replicated by other professionals to aid in the fight against COVID-19, Landeau said. To achieve this goal, the team had to closely document the process of creating the ventilator.

“Winning has just been that really great topping that says everything we’ve done has really produced a solid product that can be used, that can be picked up by someone else and can eventually be used with COVID-19 to save lives,” Landeau said. 

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com. 
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