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Manu Prakash: How to beat a pandemic on a budget

A prolific inventor of low-cost, high-impact healthcare devices recently set his sights on COVID-19.

the pneumask

The Pneumask is a full-face, reusable N95 protective equipment inspired by the mask used for snorkeling. | Image courtesy of the Prakash Lab

Manu Prakash was in France when COVID-19 took hold throughout the world.

There, the Stanford bioengineer, famous for “frugal science” like his $1 field microscope made of paper, witnessed the challenges a relatively well-resourced nation experienced holding back the disease. His head was soon filled with visions of the nightmare awaiting developing nations, given that a COVID-19 test in developing countries can cost as much as $400.

In a flurry, Prakash jotted down an engineering manifesto of sorts for a worldwide revolution in open-source, inexpensive healthcare solutions. As he saw it, here were three areas of greatest need — diagnostics, protective equipment and critical care.

From his lab at Stanford, Prakash, his students and partners in academia, industry and government around the world led a frenzy of invention that yielded an array of transformative products in just months. There was the electricity-free COVID-19 test based on a simple children’s flashlight. There was Pneumask, a full-face, reusable N95 protective equipment for caregivers inspired by the mask Prakash uses in one of his favorite pastimes, snorkeling. And then there was the “N95 factory in a box” Prakash and his lab developed using cotton candy machines to spin N95-quality filtration materials from waste plastics. Finally, to tackle one of the most technical challenges of all, he built a global consortium with manufacturing partners in India, Kenya and Nepal to design an open-source full-feature ICU ventilator, known as Pufferfish (Prakash has a penchant for naming products after marine life) — bringing a low-cost critical care solution to the world.

In August, Prakash discussed these innovations with Russ Altman, a fellow bioengineering professor and the host of Stanford Engineering’s The Future of Everything podcast. Listen here.