Student and faculty teams pursue solutions to COVID-19 challenges for health care providers

A product sprint organized by VCU’s da Vinci Center focuses on VCU Health’s most pressing needs to accelerate innovation.

A student wearing a face shield stands in a room with equipment and various items. [View Image] Adam Gainer, a Master of Product Innovation student in the da Vinci Center, is part of a VCU team focused on the production of face shields and other personal protective equipment that could benefit the Richmond community. (Courtesy photo)

As the COVID-19 pandemic spread in the United States, Adam Gainer was desperate to find ways to help. Gainer comes from a family of nurses and doctors, and he was keenly aware of the challenges that health care providers face in responding to the outbreak. He’s also an inveterate problem-solver. So Gainer began applying his skills the best way he knew how — working to make products to help those on the front lines of the crisis. 

Gainer, a Master of Product Innovation student in the da Vinci Center at Virginia Commonwealth University, is a member of multiple makerspaces and is plugged into the open-source community that widely shares 3D printing files. He’s been leading a local maker-based effort to manufacture face shields for health care providers to help respond to the heavy demand for the products. Now, as part of an innovative project spearheaded by the da Vinci Center, he’s a member of a VCU team focused on the production of face shields and other personal protective equipment that could benefit the Richmond community.

“We've got a lot of very smart people — a lot of very talented problem-solvers — and we're … tackling a big problem,” Gainer said.

Gainer and his teammates are not alone. They are one of eight teams of students and faculty working over the next few weeks on a health care product sprint organized by the da Vinci Center to respond to a variety of challenges caused by the COVID-19 outbreak. The da Vinci Center — a collaboration of VCU’s schools of the Arts and Business and colleges of Engineering and Humanities and Sciences that advances innovation and entrepreneurship — is a partner in the Health Innovation Consortium that VCU launched last year. In the fall semester, the da Vinci Center piloted a health care product sprint, taking challenges submitted by VCU Health members to the Health Innovation Consortium portal and letting loose graduate product innovation students to work on early stage prototypes to address the challenges for two weeks. The da Vinci Center was planning to expand the program this semester. The sprint was to start the Monday after spring break.

We've got a lot of very smart people — a lot of very talented problem-solvers — and we're … tackling a big problem.

“But a lot changed fast,” said Garret Westlake, Ph.D., executive director of the da Vinci Center. “So a decision was made to pivot and change the spring health care sprint to focus entirely on COVID-19.” 

Organizers took another look at the Health Innovation Consortium portal to search for submissions that could help tackle challenges related to COVID-19. Then they conferred with VCU Health leadership to see how those opportunities matched the health system’s most pressing needs. From that process, organizers settled on five key challenges to address: ventilators, personal protective equipment, repurposing community facilities to extend patient care, access to COVID-19 testing, and improving social distancing compliance. For participants, the sprint’s focus in part will be the opportunity to put in motion solutions that may go beyond the sprint period and enter the Health Innovation Consortium backlog for further development. 

"With the profound impact of COVID-19 on the world and our own community, we've curated the sprint to focus student and faculty teams solely on helping to accelerate innovation in this area of health care,” said sprint leader Joy Polefrone, Ph.D., a consultant who has a background in medical device development. “Driven by the ambiguity and uncertainty we face during this time, we choose to be actionable.”

The sprint launched with a Zoom kickoff event on March 24 and will conclude with a Demo Day on April 29. Westlake said the initial group included not only students but researchers and clinicians, and he expected more to join the project as word spread about the work being done. The sprint is being done virtually due to the need for social distancing, adding another layer of complexity to the process.

Westlake said he has been “blown away” by the strong response from students, particularly in light of the many disruptions that COVID-19 has caused for them.

“I wondered, ‘Is this just one more thing to put on them right now?’” Westlake said. “They have their classes online, they’re having to move potentially and maybe help take care of loved ones, and they’re under a lot of stress. And I wondered if this was the time to launch an innovation sprint with students. And the response has been, ‘Absolutely.’ They see this as a great opportunity to contribute in a difficult time and to apply what they’re learning.” 

Gainer said he sees VCU’s efforts as fitting into a larger, global effort of inventive, determined people collaborating to respond to the crisis and contribute any way they can. Gainer said he’s involved in online groups of people stuck at home — people with various skills and backgrounds — who are communicating, sharing ideas and information, and working together to help.

Gainer said the maker and 3D printing communities have been especially eager to use their knowledge to seek solutions. 

“There’s been a huge response from them,” Gainer said. “We live in an unprecedented time of being able to disseminate information rapidly and that creates opportunities.”

I wondered, ‘Is this just one more thing to put on them right now?’ They have their classes online, they’re having to move potentially and maybe help take care of loved ones, and they’re under a lot of stress. And I wondered if this was the time to launch an innovation sprint with students. And the response has been, ‘Absolutely.'

Melinda Hancock, chief administrative and financial officer for the VCU Health System, said the da Vinci Center health sprint is an example of the many ways the wider VCU community has collaborated to tackle the challenges COVID-19 has created. 

“The da Vinci Center and other innovators at VCU and VCU Health are delivering rapid responses to the pressing challenges health systems face nationally during this pandemic,” Hancock said. “We appreciate the commitment of the teams across the university and health system who have pulled together to develop innovative solutions quickly so we can provide the highest-quality care for patients.”

Westlake said VCU is particularly equipped to organize the types of cross-disciplinary teams necessary to address the complex challenges involved in providing health care during the pandemic. The sprint involves students from the School of the Arts, School of Business, School of Nursing and the College of Engineering, and the da Vinci Center is organizing the sprint in partnership with the Center for the Creative Economy in the School of the Arts, the Langston Center for Innovation in Quality and Safety in the School of Nursing, the Brandcenter in the School of Business, and the Institute for Engineering and Medicine in the College of Engineering.

“VCU has a great history of cross-disciplinary collaboration that in a time like this gives us an advantage because we’re already well-rehearsed and well-practiced at working together across disciplines,” Westlake said. “So when the solutions absolutely require that kind of cross-disciplinary work, we are prepared and ready for it.”

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