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ventilator-bellows

Ventilators, Bellows, and the Secret Life of Bees

by | Apr 24, 2020 | Blog

It was nearing 10 p.m. when Frank Licata pulled into a nearly empty parking lot in the Seaport District, southeast of Downtown Boston.

His cargo, which he had driven over five hours to deliver, was a potential workaround to an engineering problem that had been on the minds of the team at  The Ventilator Project for days. . He turned into a half empty parking lot nestled amongst warehouses and half-built luxury high rises, rain drenching the sidewalk as it streamed down in a steady flood. Nick Domnisch, a Long Island native who had just joined the project as an FDA liaison, emerged from the entrance of MassRobotics to meet Frank at his car window, quickening his pace in the pouring rain. 

Frank reached across the passenger seat and handed Nick a bag filled with the very  solution the team needed for their first prototype. 

He said just three words:
“Make it happen.” 


The night before Frank’s arrival, lead engineer Noah Pacik-Nelson and Nick Domnisch were forcing themselves to think out of the box. Still searching for a solution as the clock ticked well past 3:30 am, Noah opened Google and searched “food-grade bellows.”

Every ventilator needs to have an air source – the mechanism that is used to pump air into a patient’s lungs. Some ventilators use pistons; others use pneumatic air sources. However, bellows also are a viable option, as they can be used as a pressure source to compress and displace a regulated volume of air.

The question that the team had been confronting was where to find ones that were not only as safe as those used in medical-grade ventilators, but could be easily and rapidly produced during the shortage.

Yet, with an overwhelmed medical supply chain and dwindling sourcing options, The Ventilator Project had hit a wall.

The question that the team had been confronting was where to find ones that were not only as safe as those used in medical-grade ventilators, but could be easily and rapidly produced during the shortage.

Yet, with an overwhelmed medical supply chain and dwindling sourcing options, The Ventilator Project had hit a wall.

“I started scrolling…” Noah said. “I kept scrolling and wracking my brain”

Opening his second energy drink, Nick peered over Noah’s shoulder, watching bellow after bellow pass by, none satisfying the demands of the prototype. He went to take a sip of his energy drink and suddenly froze, struck by the image staring him in the face.

“Don’t they use something like that to smoke out bees?”

Noah stopped scrolling and turned to Nick. They had found their answer.

Beehive smokers were cheap, easily available, and had a supply line that could spool up quickly.

They had the same functionality as ventilator bellows, except they were used for different purposes. But what if they could be repurposed?

The pair immediately started researching where they could find a nearby manufacturer of bee smoker bellows. They soon found one, but another problem quickly arose – the closest distributor’s warehouse to The Ventilator Project’s Boston-based office was located all the way in Pennsylvania.

“We were researching, just standing in the hallway on our phones,” Nick noted. “Looks like we’re going to Pennsylvania tomorrow.”

A few hours of sleep later, they were back to tackling the problem, this time calling bee smoker bellows distributors.

“We found a number they use to schedule warehouse pickups,” Noah explained. “It was a California number. Normally when we make these calls and we say that we’re working on a ventilator, people are pretty enthusiastic to help.

We called this guy and said ‘Hey, we’re in Boston working on a ventilator,’ and he replied, ‘Why are you calling me on a Sunday morning?’”

The two got another number, and again gave it a call. It went to voicemail. Hope was fading, but they were determined to find bellows.

Then, only a few hours later, came a response.

Eager to help, the manufacturer told Nick and Noah that the closest bee bellows warehouse to them was in Pennsylvania – a company called Mann Lake.

Nick immediately went into problem-solving mode, even entertaining the idea of chartering a helicopter to transport the bellows, because each moment wasted without a prototype could lead to a potential life being lost.

“We told him we were going to have someone come pick them up at some point that day,” Nick recalled.

Mann Lake refused to make the team go out of their way. They instead offered to send someone up to deliver the bellows by hand.

The drive from Pennsylvania to Boston took roughly five and a half hours. The driver’s name was Frank, and he arrived on a Sunday night at nearly 10:00 pm in the pouring rain.

“We were thinking, should we get him a gas card, should we get him pizza? I can give him energy drinks,” Nick said. “Can we get him anything? The answer was no.”

On top of delivering them by hand, Frank and Mann Lake ended up providing The Ventilator Project with more bellows than they asked for.

And they came right in time.


Selflessness has been the central and ever-present theme of this project.

People have stepped up in times of need and provided the missing links we may not have even known were missing. We’ve seen generosity beyond the bounds of our most hopeful expectations. It’s people like Frank, driving five and a half hours in the rain, and then five and a half hours back, that have inspired – and driven us – to carry on.

The drive to move forward, not unlike our ventilator, is made of many unconventional parts.

It is made of faith – a faith in humanity, that doing good brings out the good in others.

It is made of strength – a strength in ourselves that we are only now realizing existed.

It is made of ingenuity – divergent ideas that challenge the norm so much they suddenly seem able to redefine it.

Most of all, it’s the sheer beauty that accompanies sacrifice – the sacrifice of driving through the dark and the rain to an unknown destination, hoping that maybe, just maybe, the cargo you carry might have a chance to make a difference.


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“And as I walked back to the office, I thought to myself,
“Frank – we’re gonna make it happen for you.”
– Nick Domnisch

Nick Domnisch and Noah Pacik-Nelson of The Ventilator Project tell the story themselves.

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