Article written by Jim Ingram - Rising to the world’s daily challenges through technology is the very fiber of the Air Force Research Laboratory’s (AFRL) Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program. That resilient drive and dedication endures with a new medical device inspired by the heroic staff battling COVID-19.
The idea for their protective barrier enclosure (STAT Enclosure) for health care providers, created by Justin Rice and Dr. Steve Venticinque of Olifant Medical in San Antonio, Texas, began as both witnessed the COVID-19 crisis firsthand.
“The COVID-19 call came out and Dr. Venticinque was a part of the response planning and effort in San Antonio where it got pretty bad for quite a while,” Rice, who’s worked in the medical device field for more than a decade, said. “As an anesthesiologist-intensivist he was in the operating room and intensive care units taking care of COVID-19 patients and had an idea (after) he started seeing the plexiglass box enclosures providers were using to protect themselves while inserting breathing tubes into patients.” With the plexiglass enclosures being deemed very cumbersome, Dr. Venticinque – who’s background includes being a critical care air transport physician and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel -- began thinking about how medical staff could treat and transfer high-risk COVID patients more safely and effectively.
Meanwhile, Rice, who’s wife was also working with critically ill COVID-19 patients in the Denver area at the time, was likewise looking for a way to ameliorate the situation for staff.
“Having a spouse taking care of COVID patients and having about 20 physicians I knew that were all in COVID wards masked up, that were at risk, (concerned me). It was a pretty emotional time for anyone related to healthcare workers,” Rice recalled.
The STAT Enclosure is a protective barrier used for endotracheal intubation and other procedures that are aerosol (droplet) generating. It’s equipped with ports to allow health care provider’s hands inside to treat the patient while minimizing the risk to themselves or their assistants.
“It has a suction port that attaches to a wall suction, which helps reduce particle counts. While it looks simple, it’s probably the most difficult device that I have ever had to manufacture,” Rice said.
Olifant then turned to the fertile ecosystem in its backyard of San Antonio to create and test the STAT Enclosure and eventually bring it to market. “We put it in the hands of users. So, we approached everyone from pulmonologists, respiratory therapists, critical care physicians, and anesthesiologists and had them evaluate the technology,” Rice said.
It was during this phase that Rice and Dr. Venticinque decided to approach the AFRL SBIR program for help in bringing the STAT Enclosure into existence, capitalizing on their connections from Olifant’s previous successes with the program.
“As we were developing our enclosure, we realized there was likely the need to tailor it to military specifications, such as being able to attach it to a gurney and to develop portable vacuum pump. The need to adapt our technology to DoD needs aligned with the SBIR program,” Rice explained. “Our adaptations have led to a dual-use, civilian and military technology that is even more robust than our original ideation.”
Olifant was able to enter as a Direct-to-Phase II because of the relationships the company had built within the program from previous submissions. Leveraging the AFWERX Open Topic Solicitation, Olifant’s SBIR proposal was expedited in just three weeks. Once again, they turned to the talents of many others within the San Antonio area, including the Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, who manufactured the devices, and the 59th Medical Wing.
“I’m the biggest fan of working with the 59th Medical Wing through this whole process,” Rice said. “We went from an idea, to concept, to bringing products to the market in roughly three months. Because of the large medical ecosystem in San Antonio, we were able to work through the user need gathering and developmental efforts in a very brief period of time.”
Olifant recently completed the adapted STAT Enclosure’s first production run and is currently working towards a Phase III SBIR for continued manufacturing and procurement. The device is also versatile, being potentially useful for aerosol-transmissible diseases aside from COVID-19.
Rice admitted the AFRL SBIR program can be intimidating to some at first, but the experience has been everything he and Olifant had hoped.
“I think a lot of people are scared to work with the (AFRL SBIR) because of all the unknowns. But I have yet to find an unhelpful person,” he said.
Learn how you can receive funding to develop your technology solutions to our warfighter by visiting Air Force Tech Connect at https://airforcetechconnect.org/ and Air Force SBIRSTTR at https://www.afsbirsttr.af.mil/!