Vent-Con 2020: An Open Source Ventilator Conference

Robert L. Read
4 min readMay 15, 2020


Thursday, May 21st, Public Invention will host a short, free virtual conference about open source pandemic ventilators and the world-wide effort to prevent shortfalls and save lives. HelpfulEngineering and Make Magazine are co-hosting it; we have a great set of speakers giving 15-minute talks on a 3.5 hour schedule. I hope it will be a lot of information in a short time. The theme is: “Towards Cooperation in the Pandemic Ventilator Mid-Game.”

To join the conversation now, join the HelpulEngineering VentCon slack channel. Register to receive the Zoom links when available.

The program is arranged to tell a story. I’d like to try to tell some of that story now, in hopes that those who are interested in saving lives by helping mitigate a shortfall of ventilators will attend some of the conference. We will use chat and video technology to make it more than a webinar; hopefully, the greatest outcome will be new connections between teams and new conversations.

The story of ventilators and the pandemic is complicated, and we are in the middle of it. Things continue to evolve. This conference is being kept short, so there is many things we can’t discuss — I hope when people meet each other in the extensive Slack channels we have set up these conversations will be had.

The Program

At 7:00 AM Pacific Daylight Time (so that our European and African friends can join us) we will begin be reviewing the program. At 7:15, Tim Artz and I will go over the landscape of the technology and I will make a pitch for modularity as a means for cooperation between teams, which I have co-written about extensively (here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.)

At 7:45, Dr. Erich Schulz, anesthetist, will talk about the clinical practice of the disease and how it has changed. I can’t speak for him (he is a medical doctor, I am not), but I believe he will argue that we as a community must broaden our scope to build slightly more powerful ventilators that support non-invasive ventilation. This a learning that was not obvious on March 15th when the pandemic exploded into our consciousness. Treatment of the disease, as well as the humanitarian engineering response to it, will continue to evolve.

At 8:15 Marta Belcher of Protocol Labs and Jochai Ben-Avie of MOSS will talk about how philanthropic NGOs such as their organizations have funded the effort so far and what they want the community to do. Sarah Benson-Konforty, MD, a venture capitalist as well as a doctor, will talk about how teams of makers can move from the workbench to manufacturing to deployment. After all, the purpose of this communal effort is to save lives, an nobody’s life will be saved by a pandemic ventilator that remains on a workbench.

At 9:00 AM will have a panel of leaders from the developing world: Marcos Mendez from Brazil and Karene Melloul from Kenya. They will talk about their national and continental (South America and and Africa) efforts to address this problem, focusing on supply chain and funding limitations. (We are attempting to recruit a leader from Asia to speak.) I hope they will give an idea of the disease progression as they see it; but all of see only a fraction of the picture. What happens in Nairobi might not be the same in Johannesburg or Cairo.

At 9:30 we will close the show with two of our most important speakers. Karen Sandler, who has a long-standing interest in open medical devices, will discuss the problem from the point of view of the free-libre open source hardware and software movement. Finally, Dale Dougherty will talk about “Plan C”, the civic maker response, which he has written about extensively.

Finally, Deepti Sharma, a volunteer who made this conference happen, and I will present a 5-minute vision for engineering cooperation in the future. The goal of all of this is of course not to build ventilators, but to make sure no doctor treating a patient ever runs out of tools.

The Purpose

I do not know if we will answer these questions, but the conference will raise them:

  • Are emergency ventilators still needed, and if so, where and what kind?
  • How can designs move from workbench to hospital ward?
  • How can teams cooperate instead of competing?

Last night my friend John Gibbons expressed a terrifying thought: maybe this is a “starter pandemic”. As bad as it is, this may not be the big one. The goal of this conference is to answer: What can we do today, and what can we do tomorrow?



Robert L. Read

Public Inventor. Founder of Public Invention. Co-founder of @18F. Presidential Innovation Fellow. Agilist. PhD Comp. Sci. Amateur mathematician.