vetting ventilators

Houston company partners with General Motors, others to boost country’s ventilator supply

By September 1, Project V delivered its first order of 30,000 ventilators just 154 days after launching. Photo by AJ Mast for General Motors and Ventec

Houston-based Velentium played a key role in mobilizing thousands of ventilators in the United States at a time when the pandemic and the uncertainty around it was surmounting around the country.

The medical technology company primarily worked in code, software, and cloud-based programs up until March.

"Then we had this opportunity come up in COVID that changed everything for us," says CEO Dan Purvis.

On March 14, an article for Forbes referenced one of Velentium's long-time clients Ventec Life Systems, a manufacturer of ventilators based in Washington. In the article, their client said they could increase production of their much-needed ventilators five-fold if they only had the right resources and partners. Purvis quickly decided that he and his team at Velentium would be one of them.

Velentium first aimed to help the small factory double or triple their production.

"When we first joined the process we were just going to our client, which was a relatively young start up firm, to try to help them go from 120 to 250 [units]," Purvis says.

But then General Motors showed up. And the scale changed dramatically.

The automotive behemoth launched Project V, which would marry it's manufacturing prowess with the technical expertise of the technology and engineering companies to mass produce Ventec's VOCSN ventilator systems. By March 25, operations launched at GM's Kokomo, Indiana, powerhouse plant where they were to produce 10,000 ventilators per month in just about eight week's time.

Velentium was charged with creating 141 automated test stands to verify that every one of Project V's 10,000 units were up to FDA standards. The stands featured 27 unique test systems that monitored 14 critical subcomponents, like air flow in metering valves and oxygen blends, and ultimately approved a ventilator for use through two final tests.

"It's one thing to build [ventilators]," Purvis says. "You need to build them safely, accurately, and in a repeatable way that is going to help people. And that's what our test systems insured."

And though Velentium had created many of these systems before, they had never done so at this scale or speed. Success required around-the-clock work from the then-60-person firm and new risks, that today Purvis says were worth taking.

"I was like, 'If we really want this to work we have to jump on this like nobody's business,'" Purvis recalls. "We bought $2 million worth of parts for test systems essentially at risk. We had not gotten our negotiation with General Motors done yet. But there was no way I could wait an extra week if I had eight weeks to do it. It was kind of terrifying, but it was the right thing to do. It totally aligned with our culture of saving lives."

By September 1, Project V delivered its first order of 30,000 ventilators to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, just 154 days after launching.

Today, Velentium maintains a few team members at the Kokomo facility who run sustaining engineering. Throughout the project, Velentium added 60 team members to their staff and doubled down on manufacturing capabilities. They plan to double their production space again as they continue to place more emphasis on their manufacturing arm, which Purvis says opens up new opportunities for the firm that he hopes only continues to grow.

"One of the big goals for me as a strategic leader at the company was to make sure that pre-Project V to post-Project V the transformation that happened to our company through that period would not regress to where we were before," he says. "We had so much impact and so much growth through that time I didn't ever want to change."

He adds: "We asked the question over and over again during the first few weeks of the pandemic in March: Why not us? If I will continue to ask the question…we can accomplish major things."

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Building Houston

 
 

Ty Audronis founded Tempest Droneworx to put drone data to work. Photo courtesy of Tempest Droneworx

Ty Audronis quite literally grew up in Paradise. But the Northern California town was destroyed by wildfire in 2018, including Audronis’ childhood home.

“That’s why it’s called the Campfire Region,” says the founder, who explains that the flames were started by a spark off a 97-year-old transmission line.

But Audronis, who has literally written the book on designing purpose-built drones — actually, more than one — wasn’t going to sit back and let it happen again. Currently, wildfire prevention is limited to the “medieval technology” of using towers miles apart to check for smoke signals.

“By the time you see smoke signals, you’ve already got a big problem,” Audronis says.

His idea? To replace that system with real-time, three-dimensional, multi-spectral mapping, which exactly where his company, Tempest Droneworx, comes in.

When asked how he connected with co-founder Dana Abramowitz, Audronis admits that it was Match.com — the pair not only share duties at Tempest, they are engaged to be married. It was a 2021 pre-SXSW brainstorming session at their home that inspired the pair to start Tempest.

When Audronis mentioned his vision of drone battalions, where each is doing a specialized task, Abramowitz, a serial entrepreneur and founder who prefers to leave the spotlight to her partner, told him that he shouldn’t give the idea away at a conference, they should start a company. After all, Audronis is a pioneer in the drone industry.

“Since 1997, I’ve been building multicopters,” he says.

Besides publishing industry-standard tomes, he took his expertise to the film business. But despite its name, Tempest is a software company and does not make drones.

That software is called Harbinger. Audronis explains that the real-time management and visualization solution is viewable on practically any device, including mobile or augmented reality. The system uses a video game engine for viewing, but as Audronis puts it, “the magic happens” on the back end.

Harbinger is not just drone-agnostic, but can use crowd-sourced data as well as static sensors. With the example of wildfires in mind, battalions can swarm an affected area to inform officials, stopping a fire before it gets out of hand. But fires are far from Harbinger’s only intended use.

The civilian version of Harbinger will be available for sale at the end of 2023 or beginning of 2024. For military use, Navy vet Audronis says that the product just entered Technical Readiness Level (TRL) 5, which means that they are about 18 months away from a full demo. The latest news for Tempest is that earlier this month, it was awarded a “Direct to Phase II” SBIR (Government Small Business Innovation Research) contract with the United States Department of the Air Force.

Not bad for a company that was, until recently, fully bootstrapped. He credits his time with the Houston Founder Institute, from which he graduated last February, and for which he now mentors, with many of the connections he’s made, including SBIR Advisors, who helped handle the complex process of getting their SBIR contract.

And he and Abramowitz have no plans to end their collaborations now that they’re seeing growth.

“Our philosophy behind [our business] isn’t keeping our cards close to our vest,” says Audronis. “Any potential competitors, we want to become partners.”

The company was just the two founders until five weeks ago, when Tempest’s size doubled, including a full-time developer. Once Tempest receives its SIBR check, the team will grow again to include more developers. They are currently looking for offices in the city. As Audronis says, Tempest Droneworx is “100-percent made in Houston.” Paradise may have been lost, but with Harbinger soon to be available, such a disaster need never happen again.

Dana Abramowitz and Ty Audronis co-founded Tempest Droneworks. Photo courtesy of Tempest Droneworx

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