An Ottawa respiratory therapist has traded in his hospital scrubs for business casual attire after demand for his invention that makes it safer for patients on ventilators to be transported and switched to other devices skyrocketed during the pandemic.
Frank Fiorenza initially came up with the idea for his product – dubbed Flusso, which is Italian for “fluid flow” – years ago while working as a respiratory therapist at the Ottawa Hospital.
Fiorenza realized that air expelled from patients’ lungs while they were being transferred from mechanical ventilators to smaller transport ventilators or resuscitation bags could potentially expose health-care workers to infectious aerosol particles.
Figuring there had to be a better way, he started doodling designs for a small plastic tube-like insert that would seal the flow of oxygen and keep patients’ lungs inflated during such manoeuvres.
“It was just more of a fun project, if you will,” Fiorenza explains.
After firming up the concept, the Algonquin College graduate produced a prototype on a 3D printer in his basement and tested it on a used ventilator he bought from CHEO.
Five years ago, he licensed the product to McArthur Medical Sales, an Ontario-based supplier of specialty health-care devices, and joined the firm as its head of product development.
Demand 'went through the roof'
The Flusso officially hit the market in 2018. Over the next couple of years, it was adopted in about 40 Canadian hospitals.
Then came March 2020. With the novel coronavirus suddenly spreading like wildfire across North America, Fiorenza’s phone started ringing off the hook as health-care administrators realized they needed to take every possible precaution to protect workers from infection.
“When COVID hit, the demand for Flusso went through the roof,” he says. “Within 48 hours, we had orders from about 130 hospitals in Canada and three dozen across the U.S. It broke the system, basically. We couldn’t keep up.”
Fiorenza says his device, which retails for roughly $20 a unit, has two main benefits that make it a key tool in the fight against COVID – in addition to protecting health-care workers from potential exposure to infection, it also prevents patients’ lungs from potentially collapsing and suffering even more damage.
"It broke the system, basically. We couldn’t keep up."
He points to a study published in the Canadian Journal of Respiratory Therapy late last year that showed health-care workers’ exposure to potentially infectious particles was dramatically reduced when the Flusso was used to transfer patients off ventilators.
Hospitals across the continent appear convinced. Fiorenza says he’s received tens of thousands of orders for the devices – which can be used on only one patient and need to be discarded after about a week – and sales have risen sixfold over the past year.
After initially contracting out the manufacturing to a company in Barrie, he shifted the work to a local firm, Stittsville-based L-D Tool & Die, in March.
But supply-chain disruptions – the Flusso uses three different types of plastics – and worker shortages at the previous plant have resulted in a backlog of orders he’s still scrambling to fill.
L-D can currently churn about 1,200 units a day, but Fiorenza says he’s hoping to “dramatically increase” that number thanks to the manufacturer’s latest purchase – a robot that can piece eight devices together in the same time it takes a person to assemble one.
“That’ll be a big game-changer for us,” he says, adding his firm just shelled out $20,000 for a second testing machine that sends pressurized air through each Flusso before it’s shipped out to ensure each device meets all regulatory standards.
Fiorenza, who holds 18 patents for five different devices, recently introduced a scaled-down version of the Flusso designed to be used on smaller patients and children. The new device is being manufactured by local firm Ottawa Mould Craft, and recently got the green light from regulators in Canada and the U.S.
Meanwhile, Fiorenza says he’s getting requests for the Flusso from other parts of the world, including Europe, the Middle East and South America. But for now, he says, he’s keeping his focus close to home.
“It’s just a matter of eating the elephant one bite at a time,” he says with a chuckle. “You can’t be everything to everybody.”
Although Fiorenza is still technically a casual employee of the Ottawa Hospital, he hasn’t taken a shift since the pandemic hit. He feels he can contribute more to the cause in his new role as an entrepreneur.
“To me, the greater impact I could have was putting Flusso in more patients and protecting more health-care workers and more patients,” he says. “It was a tough decision to make, but I just felt my value was better served on the other side.”