Indian labs step into a new space to work with NASA

Indian labs step into a new space to work with NASA

With vital support from government, India's private sector has taken the challenge of Covid-19 head on, relishing the opportunity to showcase their frugal but durable innovation. The licence granted by NASA to three Indian companies to manufacture life-saving ventilators is a proof of that.

One technology company has created a low-cost ventilator that runs without electricity and costs barely $30. Another has developed a portable ventilator that more than 400 companies around the world have taken an interest in.

And a third company in Noida has rolled out a toaster-sized low-cost ventilator which can be easily deployed in temporary Covid-19 field hospitals. Welcome to the age of pandemic-driven innovation in India - or rather the spirit of jugaad (improvisation) as they say. It's this all-pervading sense of frugal improvisation and adaptation to the difficult circumstances that have always been the hallmark of India's entrepreneurial foundation - and thanks to some support from the government and the easing of regulations, that spirit has found a brilliant pathway during the current Covid-19 pandemic.

From start-ups and research labs of universities to heavyweight manufacturers, carmakers, space agencies and even the Indian Railways, every commercial space with any available resources and knowledge base has been deployed to manufacture ventilators, face masks, PPE and sanitisers to help battle the virulent virus in India - with the result that even foreign companies and agencies have quickly seized on the cost-effective opportunities available in India.

The ventilator has emerged as the symbol of that challenge.

With the number of global Covid-19 cases currently hovering around 7.5 million, hospitals around the world need hundreds of thousands of new ventilators to save lives. According to one calculation, US alone needs an extra 75,000 ventilators to cope with demand.

In that context, it's hardly a wonder that three Indian companies - Alpha Design Technologies, Bharat Forge, and Medha Servo Drives - have recently got licences from NASA to manufacture this critical life-saving device, along with 18 other companies from around the world.

Following the selection, the US government rushed to congratulate the three companies. "Congrats to the 3 Indian companies NASA selected to make a ventilator specifically designed to treat COVID-19 patients. Only 21 licenses were granted worldwide -- a testament to the grantees and the importance of the US-India partnership to combat COVID19," said the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs in a tweet.

The race to develop inexpensive, home-grown breathing machines across India is a testimony to the swift coordination and speedy action involving public and private institutions. “The pandemic has brought us all together in ways I could never imagine,” Amitabha Bandyopadhyay, a professor of bioengineering at Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kanpur, told the BBC.

While scaling up production of traditional ventilators by existing manufacturers may not be that simple considering disruptions in the supply of parts and materials, global companies across the aerospace, automotive and medical sectors have joined hands to address the acute shortage of ventilators.

NASA, with no real experience in medical-device manufacturing, has developed a Covid-19 prototype ventilator in 37 days to deal with the crisis. The device, called VITAL (Ventilator Intervention Technology Accessible Locally), was developed by engineers at NASA′s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California to free up the US' limited supply of traditional ventilators so they may be used on patients with the most severe COVID-19 symptoms.

But the rising number of cases has also forced NASA to bank on the three Indian companies. While Alpha Design focuses on design, development and manufacture of defence electronics and avionics, Bharat Forge is a $3 billion conglomerate known for its engineering solutions for industrial sectors and Medha Servo Drives is a manufacturer of high-tech electronics products for rail transportation.
Selecting Indian companies for the project is not surprising considering India's proven expertise, domain knowledge and technical skills in medical devices manufacturing.
India has a burgeoning medical devices industry of its own. In the past few years, the medical devices sector in India - the fourth largest in Asia after Japan, China, and South Korea - has also grown considerably, increasingly playing a critical role in country's healthcare ecosystem. While the current market size of the medical devices industry in India is estimated to be $11 billion, reports highlight that it is poised to reach $50 billion in the next five years.
Furthermore, healthcare has become one of the key priorities of India, with the government of India rolling out several strategic measures to drive the medical devices industry, which includes promoting indigenous production and frugal engineering under the Make in India platform.
Earlier this year, Indian SMEs minister Nitin Gadkari said his department planned to set up five parks to manufacture low-cost medical devices in the country. The biggest competitive advantage of manufacturing medical devices in India is cost-effective production, apart from technical capabilities.
One impetus for developing the devices at such rapid pace is Prime Minister Narendra Modi's exhortation to the country to prepare the foundation for a robust healthcare system - while underscoring that despite a much stronger health system than India, countries such as the UK, US and Italy have been crippled by the pandemic.
As the pandemic began to intensify, the government immediately allocated nearly $2 billion to develop healthcare infrastructure and boost the efforts by the Indian companies and stakeholders. A notable achievement in this regard is the relaxation of device manufacturing norms under the Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation (CDSCO), which has allowed all companies to manufacture ventilators without the requirement of any licensing. The government think-tank NITI Aayog has also pushed private companies to mass manufacture the product, with the result that there's a concerted and dynamic push by the government to move things faster in this aspect.
Prime Minister Modi recently highlighted how India has turned the Covid-19 crisis into opportunity to create a self-reliant nation. Just like ramping up the production of PPE or N95 masks, Indian companies are now making nearly 50,000 ventilators a month from less than 5,500 ventilators in February. The licence to skill from NASA thus marks the coming of age of India's indigenous device manufacturing industry.
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