An overdue ‘insider’ story to tell: our own Innovation Forum Oxford vice-president, biomedical engineer Tom Peach, is part of the team behind the UCL Ventura Breathing Aid that is being used to treat COVID-19 patients in the NHS and internationally. Earlier this summer we interviewed Tom to hear his insider’s view on what COVID-19 innovation looks like. For our own innovation community, this is an an exemplar of interdisciplinary collaboration and a showcase of innovation in a crisis at its best!
Interview by Nanki Singh and Amrit Sami, June 2020.
Tom’s academic choices and career path encapsulate the Innovation Forum spirit of, as he puts it, capturing “the best of both worlds” — referring to bridging academia and industry. He believes in the importance of pursuing a “good enough” idea that makes its way to a useful real-world application over the “perfect theoretical solution” that gets shelved and may never bring the respective field forward.
In this interview Tom tells the tale of the 100-hour deadline to prototype the breathing device; a journey that began at a café close to UCL (University College London). Over an afternoon coffee he and colleagues met clinicians from UCLH (University College London Hospital) to inspect some ‘old’ pieces of equipment that would end up being the inspiration and building blocks for the UCL Ventura. Only after sawing apart what transpired to be ‘museum-borrowed’ pieces (shock horror), they repurposed and brought to modernity an old design concept with the clinicians’ invaluable insights, the biomedical engineers’ laser-focussed expertise, and the state-of-the-art manufacturing of Mercedes-AMG.
From afternoon tea, to a prototype, to a regulator-approved device — this is a tale of an unprecedentedly efficient response to a world-threatening crisis; a 10-day marathon that showcases how longstanding relationships between UCL academic departments, UCLH, and an industry giant, could unite top talents and produce a lifesaving solution that is now used in more than 100 NHS hospitals across the country.
There are lots of lessons to be learnt from the project; Tom champions the mantra of ‘let’s chat, build and test more’. This is an ethos that many capable academic institutions are striving to nurture, including here in Oxford, where the local ecosystem has not disappointed during these challenging times — including the development of a COVID-19 vaccine.
At Innovation Forum Oxford we believe that collaboration is the only way to uncover potential, discover capabilities, and bring more valuable solutions to life. In the academic world, we are trained to search for the reasons why something should not work; seek the approval of the whole room to move forward; or to keep our gaze inwards and claim originality. This particular experience inspired Tom, and confirmed his views on entrepreneurship; open-up your horizons; reach-out to people outside your ‘usual’ circle; build long-term relationships that you can call upon for collaborations when the time is right; let your belief in your imperfect idea drive you AND your TEAM; and ‘Go for it’. Finally, he cautions to temper enthusiasm with a little bit of academic doubt (or shall we say critical thinking) to seek out solutions and refinements from diverse minds on the way!
You can learn more about the UCL Ventura project in a recent Youtube Live webinar here.