Following in the footsteps of Tesla and Dyson, a satellite company under British billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin empire has also jumped into the emergency business of making hospital ventilators, a life-saving machine for treating severe COVID-19 patients.
Virgin Orbit, a company under Virgin Group, announced Monday that it has developed a “bridge” ventilator, a simple machine used primarily on recovering patients and those with mild symptoms. The device is ready for mass production at Virgin Orbit’s Long Beach, Calif. manufacturing facility in early April, the company said, pending approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Virgin Orbit’s regular business is building rockets and other equipment for satellite launch. The bridge ventilator was developed with the help from doctors and medical device experts at the University of California Irvine and the University of Texas at Austin through an organized effort called the Bridge Ventilator Consortium.
“We are not medical doctors nor are we usually manufacturers of medical devices. But we do have a team of incredibly innovative and agile thinkers—experts in designing, fabricating, programming, testing—who are eager to lend a hand,” Virgin Orbit said in a statement.
The goal of mass-supplying a simple ventilator is to free up more intensive-care ventilators for severely ill patients. “We face a slow-motion Dunkirk, and getting ventilators out there is very important to save lives,” said Brian J.F. Wong, a professor at UC Irvine and a member of the Bridge Ventilator Consortium. “The demand outstrips supply, so it is important the government, industry, academia, non-profits and the community work together to identify solutions, and design and construct them as fast as possible.”
“We are all heartbroken each night as we turn on the news and see the predicament facing doctors and nurses as they heroically work to save lives,” said Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart. “We are hopeful that this device can help as we all prepare for the challenges ahead.”
Virgin Orbit was launched in 2017 as a division under Branson’s space tourism company, Virgin Galactic, which itself has been an active donor in the global coronavirus relief effort lately.
In a tweet on Monday, the space company said it had donated “several hundred” N95 masks, protective suits and gloves to hospitals in California, New Mexico and Illinois.
Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides, a previous NASA executive, said his family is also helping a mom-and-pop oxygen hood maker in Texas called Sea-Long Medical Systems to produce helmet-style ventilation hoods for health care workers.