Why it’s so hard for tech companies to make ventilators

March 26, 2020, 12:55 PM UTC

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We knew this already, but we’re getting new evidence every day that expertise matters. Epidemiologists know more about pandemics than presidents. Industry veterans understand their fields more deeply than technology industry know-it-alls. And, despite some wishful and, undoubtedly, well-meaning thinking, makers of life-saving ventilators, not carmakers, will need to manufacture the devices that are in such critical demand the world over.

I’ve been obsessing over this topic for a week now. How hard could it be to double a ventilator production line or, failing that, make a good-enough product to meet an urgent need?

According to the excellent reporting in this piece by Fortune’s Maria Aspan and Naomi Xu Elegant, the answer, unfortunately, is: quite hard.

Ventilator makers already are doing what they can to make more. And some are teaming up with innovative non-medical-device partners to see what can be done quickly. But those who know the most, like Bob Hamilton, CEO of ventilator maker Hamilton Medical, explain why this is nothing like converting a car factory into a tank-making plant. “It is not a question of throwing enough money and people at the issue,” he said.

There are a lot of forthright, less-than-encouraging details in this story. Tesla is having “engineering discussions” right now, not making ventilators. Ford says it might be able to help by “early June.”

This human disaster has unleashed the innovative spirit of a business community that wants badly to help—and we all are cheering for them. But rapid innovation at scale is a tall order.


The other day I told you about the heroic work of San Francisco freight-forwarding startup Flexport to buy masks, gowns, gloves and the like for San Francisco hospitals. It quickly spent $1.4 million for the supplies and asked for donations to defray the cost. I donated and encouraged you to also, but I am embarrassed to say that rather than linking to Flexport’s donation page I linked to the LinkedIn profile of Ryan Petersen, Flexport’s CEO. I know many of you want to give, and Flexport has since expanded its efforts to other cities in need. It also now is working with other organizations on a Frontline Responders Fund, to which former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and other celebrities already have contributed. This is the correct page for making donations.

Petersen, by the way, has been feverishly learning about what it takes to provision the medical industry in a time of crisis. His early findings are fascinating and instructive.


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This edition of Data Sheet was curated by Aaron Pressman.


You're gonna need a bigger boat. The $2 trillion aid package passed by the Senate on Wednesday night included a key shift to benefit so-called gig workers. Everyone from Uber drivers to DoorDash delivery people are considered independent contractors, not employees, and therefore do not qualify for unemployment insurance under the current system. The aid bill makes such workers eligible.

Anticipation is making me late. Apple may not release its first 5G-compatible phones this year, as previously expected, the Nikkei Asian Review reports. Owing to the coronavirus outbreak and slowing economies, Apple has internally discussed delaying the debut for months past its usual September announcement. Apple, you will not be shocked to learn, declined to comment.

Little baby goes, ha, all night long. Tech companies including Facebook, Microsoft, and Slack will sponsor a virtual hackathon in conjunction with the World Health Organization to create apps to help people during the coronavirus outbreak. Under the hashtag #BuildforCOVID19, developers can submit their work from March 26 to 30 and winners will be announced April 3.

Game of thrones. Struggling e-commerce play Groupon, which is trying to pivot its business to travel experiences, removed its CEO and COO under somewhat murky circumstances. Top man Rich Williams stepped down, along with his #2, Steve Krenzer, effective immediately. North American president Aaron Cooper takes over as CEO on an interim basis. “The terms of Mr. Williams’ and Mr. Krenzer’s separations will be disclosed as available and required,” the company said.


With Congress almost done with its work on the $2 trillion coronavirus aid package, it could turn to other proposals to help fight the pandemic. San Francisco developer Maciej Ceglowski has a modest proposal, of sorts. In a blog post, he suggests that lawmakers draw a plan to create a massive tracking database using cellphone location data to slow the spread of the outbreak. But in return for the temporary invasion of privacy, the law should impose greater protections once the emergency has passed, he argues.

This enabling legislation, however, should come at a price. We have an opportunity to lay a foundation for the world we want to live in after the crisis is over. One reason we tolerate the fire department knocking down our door when there is an emergency is that we have strong protections against such intrusions, whether by government agencies or private persons, in more normal times. Those protections don't exist right now for online privacy. One reason this proposal is so easy to float is that private companies have enjoyed an outrageous freedom to track every aspect of our lives, keeping the data in perpetuity, and have made full use of it, turning the online economy into an extractive industry. That has to end.

Including privacy guarantees in the enabling legislation for public health surveillance will also help ensure that emergency measures don't become the new normal. If we use this capability deftly, we could come out of this crisis with a relatively intact economy, a low cumulative death toll, and a much healthier online sphere.


IBM and The Weather Channel debut coronavirus map By Jonathan Vanian

Why Mark Cuban is focusing his time—and money—on coronavirus relief By McKenna Moore

The podcast everyone in business should be listening to during the coronavirus pandemic By Ellen McGirt

Silicon Valley VC firm offers to expedite coronavirus tests to its investors By Jeff John Roberts

Markets rally for a second day, pushing Apple’s market cap back above $1 trillion By Anne Sraders

4 ways to keep networking while social distancing By Anne Fisher

The Coronavirus Economy: How the pandemic fast-tracked a shift to telehealth By Alexandra Kirkman

(Some of these stories require a subscription to access. There is a 50% discount for our loyal readers if you use this link to sign up. Thank you for supporting our journalism.)


In our new cancel culture (the Tony Awards dropped yesterday too), we're losing access to all kinds of art. So Mailchimp decided to do something about it: The company put online dozens of short films that were supposed to debut at SXSW. 

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