Richard Branson’s aerospace company Virgin Orbit, which is primarily focused on developing rockets to launch small satellites into space, is shifting gears during the coronavirus pandemic and has created a new medical device to help health care workers treat patients with COVID-19. The company is hoping to mass-produce the new device after receiving the necessary approvals from the FDA.
The device that Virgin Orbit has created is one that can help people get much-needed oxygen when they’re short of breath. The machine automatically pumps what are known as ambulatory bags, which emergency responders squeeze manually to pump air into a patient’s lungs. The idea is that these machines will pump the bags on their own for patients who need oxygen but don’t need to be hooked up to a ventilator. That will then free up ventilators for people who need them most, as well as free up the time of responders and health care workers to treat patients who are in critical need.
The idea for the device came after Virgin Orbit employees started looking for ways to help with the COVID-19 response. “[We] said hey, we’re not doctors, and we’re not medical device manufacturers; that’s not the background we come from, and we have enormous respect for those people,” Will Pomerantz, vice president of special projects at Virgin Orbit, tells The Verge. “But on the other hand, we’ve got a lot of engineers; we’ve got a great factory; and we’ve got a great fabrication facility machine shop. There must be something we can try.”
The company reached out to California governor Gavin Newsom, who put the team in touch with the California Emergency Medical Services Authority. The organization turned Virgin Orbit over to the Bridge Ventilator Consortium, which includes researchers at the University of California, Irvine and the University of Texas, Austin. They provided guidance on what kinds of devices would most benefit the medical community right now. After consulting with them, Virgin Orbit employees started to home in on ideas for devices that could be made as simply as possible, as quickly as possible, and as cheaply as possible to fill in the gaps in the health care system. They ultimately came up with this automatic pump and started building it with materials and tools already located at the company’s factory in Long Beach, California.
“We largely started from scratch on the simple device that goes and squeezes that bag in a reliable pattern,” says Pomerantz. The device provides a similar function to one created by MIT, but Pomerantz says the Virgin Orbit machine is largely original to the company.
Virgin Orbit is still open for business in California as it has been deemed an essential business by the state, due to the company’s contracts with NASA and the Department of Defense. In normal times, the company is mostly focused on developing its new rocket, called LauncherOne, which is designed to launch satellites the size of washing machines into orbit. LauncherOne is meant to take off from underneath the wing of a giant 747 airplane that Virgin Orbit owns called Cosmic Girl. The rocket has yet to fly, but Virgin Orbit is aiming to conduct the first test launch this year (though there will undoubtedly be impacts to the schedule because of the pandemic).
While employees at the company are still working on-site to get LauncherOne ready for its debut, other employees will also start mass-producing the new medical device once Virgin Orbit gets clearance from the FDA. Virgin Orbit says that it has a talented team of both mechanical and software engineers working on the device. “A nice bonus was we defined a few members of our staff who had at previous stops in their career worked on medical devices,” says Pomerantz. “And so they were a little bit more familiar with some of the terminology, and some of the different specifications that the industry was looking at.”
Virgin Orbit isn’t the only company pivoting to medical devices right now. Companies like Dyson, Tesla, General Motors, Ford, and more have all committed to mass-producing critical tools like ventilators as patients overwhelm hospitals throughout the US. The plan for Virgin Orbit is to make the devices while they’re needed for the pandemic, but the company doesn’t have any long-term ambitions of getting into the medical device business. “We want to get these things to hospitals as quickly as possible, get this crisis over, and then keep on building rockets,” says Pomerantz.