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From vacuum cleaners to ventilators – can Dyson make the leap?

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Since the engineering firm Dyson unveiled a prototype ventilator that it said could help arm the NHS for a surge in Covid-19 patients, there has been scepticism about its role. The billionaire entrepreneur Sir James Dyson is better known for his bagless vacuum cleaners, his backing for Brexit and more recently an attempt to build…

Since the engineering firm Dyson unveiled a prototype ventilator that it said could help arm the NHS for a surge in Covid-19 patients, there has been scepticism about its role.

The billionaire entrepreneur Sir James Dyson is better known for his bagless vacuum cleaners, his backing for Brexit and more recently an attempt to build an electric car that he ultimately abandoned.

One ventilator expert, whose company Penlon is working with the Ventilator Challenge UK consortium, speculated that designing a new device and producing thousands rapidly was unrealistic.

The government has ordered 10,000 ventilators from Dyson, which developed its CoVent prototype in under a fortnight and says it could start producing them within weeks. “The race is now on to get it into production,” Dyson told staff in an emailed rallying cry.

The company has no medical expertise but it does have some relevant experience, given that both ventilators and vacuum cleaners involve pumping air efficiently. Areas of crossover include digital motors, battery packs, airflow analysis and high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters.

Nor has Dyson been working alone. It teamed up with the Technology Partnership, a Cambridge-based melting pot of scientists and innovators, some of whom have significant medical experience.

The government’s medical and healthcare products and regulatory agency has also been looking at Dyson’s plans. It has yet to give final approval for the CoVent but it has been involved in testing.

Not everyone is happy about the way Dyson has gone about trumpeting its role in the effort. Dozens of companies are working on separate efforts to produce ventilators and all have kept their plans relatively secret until the government is ready to give an official update.

“We’re waiting for the green light to start talking about it and Dyson jumping the gun wasn’t helpful to anyone,” said a source at one company.

The fact that the government has placed firm orders for 10,000 CoVents pending regulatory approval indicates that the plan has legs. Dyson has also promised to donate another 5,000 to aid global efforts to fight Covid-19, with 1,000 of them reserved for the UK.

“The government will be looking at all options to make sure they have the right technology available to them,” said Neil Campbell, whose company Inspiration Healthcare has a £4m contract to import ventilators from overseas while the UK production effort gathers pace. “There’s a need for an awful lot of ventilators and if someone has a plan you’re going to look at it.”

Dyson is not a complete outlier in claiming it can design and build a ventilator – a complex and highly specialised piece of equipment – from scratch. The defence and engineering firm Babcock followed suit on Thursday, working in tandem with an unnamed company that already has expertise in the area.

Sources in government and among industrial firms taking part in the effort say no one thinks of the various plans released by Dyson, Babcock and the Ventilator Challenge UK consortium as being in competition with one another.

Rather, the government is adopting a blunderbuss approach, throwing as much ammunition as it can at a problem that cannot yet be quantified.

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