Dr. Jim Roberts image
Dr. Jim Roberts, an independent advisor for PDD

Innovation in the healthcare sector can often be viewed as a finance-generating activity. However, a new type of negative pressure ventilatory support device called Exovent was developed during the pandemic based on a charitable model of innovation.

Dr. Jim Roberts, an independent advisor for PDD, an innovation consultancy that creates products and experiences to improve people’s lives, discusses how a charitable model for innovation can allow for a more efficient and creative relationship between the assistive technology industry and the clinical world.


As we look back on the COVID-19 pandemic – particularly in the early stages of the outbreak – we can see that it undoubtedly forced more innovation in healthcare. While we are all well aware of the enormous strain the pandemic put on our healthcare system, what may be less well appreciated is that it also gave us a glimpse of what a more agile, efficient and creative system for innovation could look like.

This is because frontline clinical staff identified what innovation was needed and were able to action solutions more readily. Already, we are seeing the process revert back to pre-pandemic practice. However, it’s critical that we take stock of the value these temporary processes provided to the industry.

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The impact of necessity on healthcare innovation

As the saying goes, ‘necessity is the mother of invention’; the urgency brought about by the pandemic resulted in a period of intense innovation in an industry that can typically be slow to adopt technological innovations. Innovation was driven from a more practical perspective as healthcare professionals were vocal about what they needed to work more efficiently and serve patients in a better way, quickly making it a reality.

However, the pandemic has also identified gaps and shortcomings in healthcare innovation and design.

These relate to the technology and systems being used, as well as the processes in place to develop and introduce new innovations. The root of these shortcomings lies in ineffective adoption models, which are now under the microscope. It is evident that an overhaul of the institutional culture to allow and encourage ideas from everyone – including patients – thereby eliminating the commercialisation mindset that currently exists for meaningful patient innovation.

Charitable model

Innovation in the sector can often be viewed as a finance-generating activity; however, the pressures from the pandemic temporarily changed this outlook as new innovations were developed to deal with the very specific needs that the pandemic generated, for instance, regarding protective clothing, communication and access to healthcare facilities.

As an example, Exovent, a new type of negative pressure ventilatory support device, was developed based on a charitable model of innovation during the COVID-19 pandemic. The creation of this product using this approach allowed for a more collaborative and agile way of working. It also allowed for a more efficient and creative business relationship between the industry and the clinical world.

It is now being developed to become a fully compliant device with European medical regulations. The incredible progress that this device has made is a result of this charitable model.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic 1.5 million people, including 700,000 children, died annually of pneumonia worldwide; over 4,000 every day. It is the fourth most common cause of death. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) additionally kills three million people worldwide annually and is relentlessly increasing.

All these people need access to safe, reliable and effective treatment for critical respiratory illness. Increasing understanding of COVID-19 pneumonia has shown that non-invasive forms of ventilatory support, which do not require patients to be anaesthetised and intubated, are preferable and advantageous for many patients.

Exovent is a charity led by a team of eminent anaesthetists, critical care doctors, paediatricians, surgeons, critical care nurses, senior engineers and commercial professionals. We believe that Continuous Negative Extrathoracic Pressure (CNEP), and Negative Pressure Ventilation (NPV) are valuable methods of breathing support for the treatment of acute pneumonia, including COVID-19, and chronic pulmonary disease of many types.

Collaboration within the health system needs to be approached as a partnership, between both internal stakeholders and external third-parties, which will ultimately improve the cultures and lead to meaningful patient outcomes. We’ve seen what can happen when we adopt this approach in the short-term. Imagine what can be achieved if charitable and commercial processes are permanently levelled up.


About Dr. Jim Roberts

Dr. Jim Roberts is an independent advisor at innovation consultancy PDD. He is also a consultant anaesthetist and medical innovator at University College London Hospitals (UCLH).

Jim was involved with the development of Exovent, a new type of negative pressure ventilatory support device that was created in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

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