• “Our 3D printed valves and masks re-adapted for the COVID-19 emergency” 

An interview with Cristian Fracassi, CEO of the innovative Brescia-based startup company that risched to hel hospitals

Let’s start from the end, or rather with the interviews given on TV, on the radio, and with newspapers from all over the world, from the New York Times to the BBC. After all, the story of Cristian Fracassi, CEO of the innovative company Isinnova, is one that needs to be told during these difficult times of the Coronavirus crisis. It’s a story that can give us “a spark of hope”, as he explains.

In fact, in just 72 hours, this 36-year-old engineer from Brescia and his team produced the 3D-printed valves needed to operate oxygen masks for COVID-19 patients. Just a few days later they patented a valve designed to transform snorkelling masks into emergency tools that hospitals can use to fight the Coronavirus outbreak: “We spent two weekends in a row at work, and we were exhausted. But it was extremely fulfilling!”

The images of the mask transformed into a respirator have made their way around the web. How did this idea come about?
“It's true... I’ve actually lost count of the number of people who have called us, even from abroad, from countries like Tunisia and the United States. It all began with a former consultant, Dr Renato Favero. An amazing man. He came up with the idea of using common snorkelling masks already available on the market to obviate the need for hospital C-PAP masks for sub-intensive care units, and asked us to create the valves necessary to adapt them to this new use. He’d heard about us from a doctor at the Chiari hospital, in the province of Brescia, which was the first facility to have sought our help.”

In that case, you were involved in an emergency response effort. What happened?
“I was contacted by the editor of the Giornale di Brescia, who in turn had been alerted by the hospital. They were looking for a company that could 3D print the valves necessary to operate respirators for COVID-19 patients (Venturi masks). In fact, they were running out, and the manufacturer had told them that they wouldn’t be able to supply any more very soon. Isinnova, for which I’m the CEO, immediately accepted. I asked myself, ‘what if my life depended on those respirators?’. I have to admit that I thought it would be a simple job. Instead, it turned out to be quite complicated. In fact, when we went to the hospital to copy the design for the valves they needed, we immediately realised that the job was going to take some extreme precision.”

After that, it all happened very quickly thanks to 3D printing: had you ever produced something like this before?
“After wewere told about the problem on Friday, we produced the first prototype in just a couple of hours, performed the initial testing on Saturday, and were able to provide the hospital with a hundred valves or so by Sunday. With a young team made up of people in their twenties and thirties, our company is an innovative startup (we’re even registered to the Open Innovation platform) dedicated to advising other companies on how to develop and improve their products. And while we had printed 3D prototypes for our customers in the past, we had never done valves for the biomedical sector. And never anything in such large numbers. In fact, we ended up having to ask another local business to borrow their 3D printer, which was bigger than the six we had. For this reason, we also immediately specified that the parts we produced were not meant to replace the originals, and that they were intended exclusively for emergency purposes. We even asked the other hospitals, which then contacted us, to try writing to the manufacturer first.”

That was the beginning of a chain reaction, which even resulted in the foreign markets hearing about your work. And a new challenge presented itself, in this case based on your own design, is that right?
“That’s right... we designed a coupling valve that could connect a snorkelling mask to the hospital’s oxygenation tubes. And once again, it all happened in just a few days. It took ten hours just to design it, then we tested the prototype at the Chiari Hospital by connecting it to the body of the respirator. Then we carried out additional tests for three days at the Civic Hospital in Brescia. Once its proper functionality was verified, we decided to post the design file online, along with a video tutorial, in order to share it with the entire community of manufacturers. In fact, unlike the valve originally requested the by the Chiari Hospital, this was a product that had been designed in-house and was simple enough to be reproduced without any errors. We even patented it, but only to prevent others from profiteering off of it: the design is available to everyone. And I repeat, this is only intended to meet the needs of health facilities that request it, if they are in immediate need and are unable to find a regular supply.”

It’s such an amazing story... was it just a matter of having the right skills, in the right place, at the right time?
“I’m an Architect/Construction Engineer, with a PhD in Materials engineering and a master’s degree in Economics and business idea development. Training is naturally a factor, and we’ve demonstrated the enormous potential of 3D printing, which can be lacking in precision, but has undeniable advantages in terms of production speed. But, in the end, I believe that the difference lies in the desire to get involved, to get things done, and to never back down in the face of obstacles. I can’t say no if someone asks me to lend a hand. Even if I have never dreamt that it would lead to something like this.”

What do you mean?
“While 3D printing a specific valve is no easy task, for me the greatest difficulty was managing everything that happened afterwards. As soon as we produced the first valves, we began receiving hundreds of messages, and now we’re getting up to 2 thousand emails a day. Many people have written to compliment us, lots of doctors have written to request our valves, and over 1,200 manufacturers have written to express their willingness to produce the Charlotte valve for adapting snorkelling masks. Some have even already sent them, directly to our address! We’ve therefore created a dedicated section of our website for collecting offers from companies and requests from hospitals: for the time being we’re acting as the mediator between the two parties, but the Civil Protection service will soon be taking over.”
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