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."

A Rice University team of engineers designed a low-cost ventilator, and now the device, which has been picked up for manufacturing, has received approval from the FDA. Photo courtesy of Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

Ventilator designed by Rice University team gets FDA approval

in the bag

A ventilator that was designed by a team at Rice University has received Emergency Use Authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The ApolloBVM was worked on March by students at Rice's Brown School of Engineering's Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen, or OEDK. The open-source plans were shared online so that those in need could have access to the life-saving technology. Since its upload, the ApolloBVM design has been downloaded by almost 3,000 registered participants in 115 countries.

"The COVID-19 pandemic pushed staff, students and clinical partners to complete a novel design for the ApolloBVM in the weeks following the initial local cases," says Maria Oden, a teaching professor of bioengineering at Rice and director of the OEDK, in the press release. "We are thrilled that the device has received FDA Emergency Use Authorization."

While development began in 2018 with a Houston emergency physician, Rohith Malya, Houston manufacturer Stewart & Stevenson Healthcare Technologies LLC, a subsidiary of Kirby Corporation that licensed ApolloBVM in April, has worked with the team to further manufacture the device into what it is today.

An enhanced version of the bag valve mask-based ventilator designed by Rice University engineers has won federal approval as an emergency resuscitator for use during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo courtesy of Stewart & Stevenson

The Rice team worked out of OEDK throughout the spring and Stewart & Stevenson joined to support the effort along with manufacturing plants in Oklahoma City and Houston.

"The FDA authorization represents an important milestone achievement for the Apollo ABVM program," says Joe Reniers, president of Kirby Distribution and Services, in the release. "We can now commence manufacturing and distribution of this low-cost device to the front lines, providing health care professionals with a sturdy and portable ventilation device for patients during the COVID-19 pandemic."

Reniers continues, "It is a testimony to the flexibility of our people and our manufacturing facilities that we are able to readily utilize operations to support COVID-19 related need."

The device's name was selected as a tribute to Rice's history with NASA and President John F. Kennedy's now-famous speech kicking off the nation's efforts to go to the moon. It's meaningful to Matthew Wettergreen, one of the members of the design team.

"When a crisis hits, we use our skills to contribute solutions," Wettergreen previously told CultureMap. "If you can help, you should, and I'm proud that we're responding to the call."

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Houston SaaS startup raises $10M to keep up with customer growth

money moves

A Houston software company has announced its latest funding.

Liongard, an IT software provider, has raised an additional $10 million led by Updata Partners with contribution from TDF Ventures — both existing investors in the company. The funding, according to a news release, will go toward providing the best customer service for Liongard's growing customer base.

The technology is providing managed service providers, or MSPs, improved visibility across the IT stack and an optimized user experience.

“Since working with our first MSP partners, we’ve seen time and again the power of visibility into IT data, reducing the time they spend researching customer issues and allowing them to respond faster than their peers,” says Joe Alapat, CEO and co-founder of Liongard, in the release. “This investment enables us to continue to achieve our vision of delivering visibility into each element of the IT stack.”

The company has about 2,000 partners in support of more than 60,000 end customers. And has been recognized as a top employer by Forbes and Inc. magazine earlier this year.

“We are excited to deepen our commitment with Liongard,“ says Carter Griffin, general partner at Updata, in the release. “With its leading data platform for MSPs we expect continued fast-paced growth.”

Liongard's last funding round was in May of 2020 and was a $17 million series B round. Both Updata Partners and TDF ventures were involved in that round. The company's total funding now sits at over $30 million.

Rice University rises to No. 1 spot in new ranking of best college investments

money moves

By one measure, earning a degree at Rice University is the smartest move in the Lone Star State.

In its eighth annual ranking of colleges and university that give students the best return on their educational investment, personal finance website SmartAsset places Rice at No. 1 in Texas and No. 10 in the U.S. It’s the only Texas school to break into the national top 10.

To determine the best-value colleges and universities in each state, SmartAsset crunched data in these categories: scholarships and grants, starting salary for new graduates, tuition, living costs, and retention rate.

While the tuition ($47,350) and student living costs ($17,800) at Rice are the highest among the top 10 Texas schools on the list, the average amount of scholarships and grants ($43,615), average starting salary ($77,900), and retention rate (97 percent) also are among the highest.

According to Rice, tuition, fees, on-campus room and board, books, and personal expenses for the 2022-23 academic year add up to $74,110. That figure, which excludes financial aid, applies to a full-time, degree-seeking student living on campus.

“Rice University is consistently ranked as a best value in higher education and is one of America’s leading teaching and research universities,” the school’s Office of Financial Aid says. “By attending Rice, you will not only receive a superior education at a reasonable cost, you also will benefit from having a Rice degree long after graduation.”

Three other schools in or near the Houston metro area appear on SmartAsset’s list of the biggest-bang-for-your-buck schools in Texas:

  • Prairie View A&M University, No. 4. The university posted the lowest retention rate (74 percent) among the 10 schools. The remaining figures sit roughly in the middle of the pack.
  • University of Houston, No. 5. The university’s tuition ($8,913) was the lowest in the top 10, as was the average amount of scholarships and grants ($6,544).
  • Texas A&M University-College Station, No. 6. The university’s living costs are the second highest among the top 10 ($17,636), while its average starting salary for new grads lands at No. 3 ($64,400).

Other schools in the state’s top 10 are:

  • University of Texas at Austin, No. 2.
  • University of Texas at Dallas (Richardson), No. 3.
  • Texas Tech University in Lubbock, No. 7.
  • LeTourneau University in Longview, No. 8.
  • University of North Texas in Denton, No. 9.
  • Texas State University in San Marcos, No. 10.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston expert addresses the growing labor shortage within health care

guest column

Long before COVID-19 became a part of our new normal, the concerns around shortages in health care staffing were present.

To put this in real terms, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the latest projection of employment through the end of this decade is an increase of nearly 12 million jobs. A fourth of those — 3.3 million to be exact — are expected to go towards health care and social assistance roles.

Before the pandemic, the concerns centered around managing a growing retired population and a slowing in higher education nurse enrollment. Then amid the growing shortage concerns surrounding the support for aging baby boomers, we were all thrusted into a pandemic.

The stressors on health care professional staffing have doubled down and what the increased shortage has shown us is the need to intervene and change the traditional hiring practices. Speed to place a nurse on assignment doesn’t just ensure productivity — it is a matter of life or death.

Over the past several years, the evolution of technology has drastically changed how health care facilities operate and interact with their employees as well as patients. There was a point in time where the structure in health care staffing was rigid without flexibility or varieties of employment type. Conversations around travel positions, per diem, and permanent are all now commonplace as the recent shortages caused us to normalize the discussion around role type and use of technology to influence speed to hire.

This whole evolution was put to test when April 2020 came, and the initial brunt of the pandemic was in full swing. The entire world was in panic mode. During these quarantine times, we were in a state of a health care emergency with thousands of patients seeking health care. Unfortunately, hospitals could not keep up with this demand with their existing nurse professionals, and became severely overloaded and dangerous. Due to this the United States saw unprecedented labor shortages, impacting a large number of nurses and health care workers as it pertains to both their physical and mental health.

What we are seeing now is a period classified as the “The Great Rethinking,” where nurses and health care workers alike are speaking up for what they believe in and deserve. Salary transparency and flexibility are just the tip of the iceberg for this movement.

SkillGigs is unique in that we are giving the power back to registered nurses and health care professionals, while meeting the demand created by the pandemic. Our team has been fortunate to be a catalyst to direct the change in the future of work, and we look forward to continuing to innovate.

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Bryan Groom is the division president of health care at Houston-based SkillGigs.