In November 2021, Oxyjet became the global winners of the IMAGINE IF! Accelerator 2021 when they pitched at the global finals at our Invest in Innovation conference. Oxyjet is an innovative start-up from Bangladesh that rose to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic by developing low-cost and electricity-free ventilators which would meet to needs of developing countries. Narges Sheikhansar sat down with Dr. Taufiq Hasan, Meemnur Rashid, and Kaiser Ahmed Alman from the Oxyjet team to discuss their journey in developing this life saving device.
Narges Sheikhansari: Thank you once again for being here today. Please tell me a bit about your team. What are your backgrounds and what is your founding story?
Meemnur Rashid: When we started this project, we were undergraduate students, yet to graduate. We started talking about this project back in March 2020. Back in March 2020, the first covid patient was found in Bangladesh. So, then Dr. Taufiq, our faculty member from the biomedical engineering department at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET), emailed us about what can we do as biomedical engineers during the covid situation. At that time, everyone was so hyped about working towards making low-cost ventilators, because when covid started spreading, no country in the world had enough ventilation support, or infrastructure to deal with all the patients. Even developed countries, like Italy, struggled with their healthcare system, when covid started to break out. So, at that time we started working on a ventilator, and then soon realized that it is a very sophisticated machine and that it was not feasible to deploy such sophisticated technology in our country within a short amount of time.
Dr. Taufiq Hasan: Yes, we started by finding a clinical need. We investigated the clinical scenario first, where we spent a lot of time, and then we defined the needs. We also spoke to doctors, to see what their needs are, how are they controlling the virus’ spread.
It became what’s known as frugal innovation, where we went back to the essential elements, or the must-have features, basically to reduce the cost to a point, where it becomes highly affordable.
So, we found this problem and then made a solution because of the COVID situation.
Narges: That’s really interesting. And what have been the challenges to your success? What are the unexpected lessons you’ve had to learn?
Meemnur: After COVID cases started spreading in our country, the government imposed a lock down, at very short notice. Everything including our university was shut down. We all started initial conversations online. But after that, knowing what the problem was and what we wanted to do, we couldn’t move around the city. Then again, we didn’t have all the equipment that was needed to develop and test our device. We initially used 3D printing technology to make the devices, and then we had to test the device.
Dr. Taufiq: So considering the situation and the lockdown, everybody on the team was taking risks by deciding to even work on this. At that time, when everybody was scared, we did what had to be done. Our university’s labs were closed. We didn’t have the equipment to calibrate our device. So those were the main challenges. Plus the sourcing, when we were buying things, if they were not available in the market we would sometimes have to import them, like a filter or masks. We received donations from a US company to facilitate this. When there was lockdown in the US, shipments were closed. The whole supply chain was impacted, and we couldn’t move around. All these challenges together slowed us down a lot.
Kaiser Ahmed Alman: Even when I went to the hospital, the traffic police stopped me and didn’t allow me to go to the hospital. Because I had no patient in the hospital. So, I had to tell them that, “no, we have a device, we are testing it on a patient”. So, I had to cross over all these restrictions.
Narges: I understand that the major challenge to your work were the national lockdowns. So, now that we have covered challenges, please tell me what have been the key pieces of support that have helped you grow?
Meemnur: Being students, we didn’t know many aspects about how to develop a product, and how to evaluate it. We had to learn a lot of techniques, tools, technologies and software.
We never got demotivated no matter the problem we faced. We didn’t say, “no, we can’t do it.” We were always eager to learn something new.
Dr. Taufiq: Yes, so Meemnur was saying we never gave up. There were many others trying to make ventilators, but they gave up at different points along the way. We never stopped.
Narges: Amazing. And what are your next steps? Where do you see your start-up in 5 years?
Dr. Taufiq: We really want to have a global market and we plan to have FDA clearance and get vetting from the World Health Organisation (WHO). We’ve done quite bit of homework on this aspect; learning the FDA requirements for this kind of device. And we’ve discussed this with an FDA consultant to find out what the procedure is.
Narges: Wonderful. My last question is: Do you have any advice for other scientist entrepreneurs looking to start their own innovation?
Meemnur: I would say, if you have found a problem, and you have a solution for it, stay motivated to solve that problem. You will find a way. You must be open minded and keep motivated. Never give up. We have overcome a lot of failures in our path. We struggled to find a solution to them, but we never gave up. Another piece of advice is to find a solution that fits within the existing system as it has a higher chance of acceptance.
Narges: Thank you so much for your great advice and for the interview.