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Challenge America capitalizes on Northeast Ohio medical expertise to solve COVID problems in new ways

Posted at 6:54 PM, Dec 02, 2020

CLEVELAND — The coronavirus made people all across the country step up in new ways to solve the problems the virus created.

Days into the pandemic, companies pivoted their work to print headbands for face shields while a decentralized army of private residents sewed cloth masks for friends, family, and strangers.

The next iteration of that work came from Colorado-based non-profit Challenge America, which usually works with “service members, veterans and their families to resources and solutions that build community and give purpose to their lives,” according to its mission statement.

The group already had been working in Northeast Ohio through a partnership with St. Edward High School in Lakewood, and its The Joseph & Helen Lowe Institute for Innovation in pre-COVID maker challenges.

“So when we were looking at the best place to stand this up, we decided to stand it up in Cleveland,” said Challenge America Executive Director Dallas Blaney, PhD.

Over the summer, Challenge America pulled together engineers and investors to solve problems in five different areas:

  • First Responders
  • Nursing home staff
  • House keepers
  • Caregivers
  • Disaster Relief workers

Challenge America gathered information about what COVID-related problems were emerging in those fields and directed teams of innovators to solve the problems. Experts from each field routinely checked in with the teams, “to guide the team, steer the team, to make sure they’re actually solving for the problem those folks are facing,” said Blaney.

That’s where members of Cleveland Clinic’s Acute Care Transport team helped out.

“One of the challenges that we faced in the early days of the pandemic included ventilator shortages,” said Cleveland Clinic’s Abby Brown.

So Brown and her colleagues, Jackie Gill and Michael Passalacqua, consulted with the team making, “a $300 Open Source ventilator built using highly available commodity hardware, a novel low-cost sensor package, and 3D printed parts,” according to the project’s description.

“Engineers are really good at designing a device that would work but I think in the real-life, clinical setting there are things that I think we can anticipate that they’re not familiar with,” said Passalacqua.

Some of the projects are already being pilot-tested in hospitals around the nation. Design plans that are simple enough are being uploaded to the National Institute of Health so that people in other parts of the country can download and assemble the same solutions in their communities.

It’s an especially helpful tool for a product like a ventilator especially as hospitals prepare for COVID numbers to keep rising.

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Early in the pandemic, Ford retooled some of its manufacturing space to build ventilators and bring workers back to work. The ventilator as it appears in a video provided by Ford Motor Company.

“Then they have those [ventilators] in supply without taking a bug bulk of their revenue, without having a huge upfront cost,” said Gill.

The next step is to connect the project teams with manufacturing companies and potential investors in an attempt to see if any of the solutions can be commercialized and mass-produced.

Blaney said that is "the ‘eharmony moment’ where we can get the makers together with the folks from manufacturing and the folks with the ability to invest and put them together in the same room and give them the opportunity to meet."

Even once COVID is better contained, Blaney says Challenge America’s pandemic pivot showed the structure can be applied to other situations in which creative and quick solutions are needed for new problems.

“We can turn on and utilize [the maker community] and then turn off as needed,” said Blaney. “But we have that system in place to activate this community and give it the support it needs to operate effectively.”

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