The startup OPT Industries started producing nasal swabs to deal with the scarcity as hospitals tried to ramp up Covid-19 checks. Credit: OPT Industries

MIT spinout OPT Industries makes use of novel additive manufacturing programs to create intricately-designed merchandise.

Over practically seven years researching 3D printing programs in MIT’s Media Lab, Jifei Ou SM ’14, PhD ’19 started to suspect the work may result in higher merchandise. He by no means may have imagined it might assist handle provide shortages attributable to a worldwide pandemic.

Since March of final 12 months, Ou’s firm, OPT Industries, has been working with hospitals to ship a brand new kind of nasal swab for Covid-19 testing. The swabs make use of skinny, hairlike buildings Ou developed whereas at MIT. Tiny woven lattices inside OPT’s swabs permit them to soak up and launch extra fluid than standard swabs.

The MIT spinout makes use of a steady manufacturing method that enables it to scale up printer manufacturing with demand. To date, it has provided over 800,000 swabs to numerous health care and at-home testing organizations, serving to to fulfill a scarcity that had threatened hospitals’ testing capability.

In the 12 months since Ou realized OPT may play a task within the pandemic response, the corporate’s small workforce has multiplied its manufacturing and distribution capabilities, partnered with giant health care organizations like Kaiser Permanente, and begun creating different merchandise that might profit from the corporate’s design course of.

“It’s very meaningful to be part of this effort,” Ou says. “It also feels particularly good because we’ve been developing materials with hairlike structures for a long time, so it’s like, ‘Aha, our expertise finally put to use!’”

An innovation leaves the lab

Ou’s time as a analysis assistant within the Media Lab’s Tangible Media Group culminated in a PhD for which he created new methods to design and 3D print intricate microstructures. The work required his workforce to construct its personal 3D printer, create design software program, and develop particular polymers to fulfill high sturdiness and determination necessities.

Ou acquired help from MIT Sandbox and the E14 Fund, a Media Lab-focused funding firm. Ou additionally credit MIT’s Industrial Liaison Program for serving to him safe business connections. Since leaving MIT, Ou’s workforce has improved the throughput of the machines, enabling steady printing that led the corporate to give attention to creating versatile, textile-like supplies.

In March final 12 months, as hospitals across the nation started running out of the nasal swabs wanted to check for Covid-19, Ramy Arnaout ’97, a director at Beth Israel’s scientific microbiology laboratories and an affiliate professor at Harvard Medical School, despatched an e-mail to his community at MIT and past wanting for assist.

The following day, Ou walked into Arnaout’s workplace at Beth Israel with a prototype nasal swab his workforce had put collectively in a single day. The go to was notable not solely for the short turnaround, but in addition for the precision with which the prototype was made.

OPT’s merchandise are designed utilizing algorithms that try to optimize every fiber placement. The firm’s swabs function porous microstructures inside their heads which can be tuned to gather and retain fluid, then rapidly launch that fluid when it enters a take a look at vial.

“When it came to the swabs we thought, ‘Hey, that’s a great fit!’” Ou remembers. “Swabs need to be soft, flexible, the structures on the tip need to be very intricate. That’s what we do.”

Ou labored with members of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms and an exterior microbiology lab to match OPT’s swabs with conventional, Q-tip-like cotton swabs. The checks confirmed that OPT’s swabs launched 20 instances the quantity of micro organism for testing. That’s necessary as a result of extra micro organism will increase the sensitivity of checks, notably speedy checks, in line with Ou.

INSTASWAB vs Conventional Swab

OPT Industries’ swab (the INSTASWAB) makes use of micron-scale fibers to soak up and launch extra fluid than standard swabs. Gif: OPT Industries

Moving ahead

OPT’s additive manufacturing system can produce the corporate’s hairlike microstructures in a extremely automated manner that enables OPT to compete on worth with conventional swab makers. The firm at present is ready to produce 80,000 swabs a day in its facility, and Ou says OPT is building newer variations of its machines that may produce merchandise much more rapidly.

OPT has secured partnerships with giant health care organizations such because the distributor Henry Schein to get its swabs into hospitals, health clinics, and at-home testing kits.

The startup can also be creating different medical sampling gadgets that use its high bacterial assortment fee to check for different ailments. In May, OPT will transfer into a brand new workplace in Medford, Massachusetts, that may deliver collectively its lab and manufacturing groups. Ou says the aim is to hurry up the cycle from product ideation to design, prototype, optimization, and manufacturing.

“We’re trying to be like [the multinational products company] 3M in additive manufacturing,” Ou says. “Everyone knows 3M because they have a lot of different products that are essential to daily life. That’s the model we’re going after. We have other medical and cosmetic products under development — the swab is just the beginning.”

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