By Holger Dielenberg
What is FREO2’s mission and how did the idea come about?
The driver behind FREO2’s mission came about at a No Limits Symposium in 2010 which is a global collective to try and solve some of the world’s biggest health issues. Some of our founders were inspired by the need for more reliable electricity to power oxygen concentrators in developing countries. They thought; is the problem we’re trying to solve electricity or is it oxygen? Over a few short years this thinking developed into a technology that allows the generation of oxygen to be delivered without electricity. This has since grown into a variety of products to meet the demand for oxygen delivery in low resource settings like low to middle income countries.
How does the Engineers Without Borders partnership work?
FREO2 and Engineers without Borders have partnered to increase the impact of health devices by developing a scaling oxygen delivery technology. It’s funded through the Planet Wheeler Foundation and at the moment we have an engineer, Andy Drain working with us who works with Engineers without Borders.
What is FREO2’s target market?
FREO2’s target market is low resource settings in low to middle income countries where oxygen supply isn’t readily available. Oxygen concentrators are expensive and rely on stable electricity to run and oxygen cylinders can be hard to access particularly in rural settings. Unfortunately, 99% of deaths from pneumonia are in low resource areas and it can be cured with oxygen and antibiotics so FREO2’s oxygen delivery system is a solution that targets these areas.
What attracted you to FREO2 and what is your role there?
I was attracted to the role at FREO2 as a product engineer because when I started my career, I really enjoyed my work in medical technology product design and I really like the idea that the things you create are used to give someone else a better life. Then I wanted to work more in the development space to try and leverage the privileges that I’ve had in life to help create positive impact for the less fortunate. The opportunity to work with FREO2 combines those two passions of mine. It’s quite a niche area because it combines medical technology in a developing area and I hope it allows me to provide positive impact in that space.
What’s it like working for a startup?
Working for a startup is really interesting. My background is in a lot of large organisation like Fisher and Paykel health care and Water Aid and Beca. I’ve never worked in an environment before where a lot of the business systems and structures aren’t yet in place. That can be seen as a frustration when trying to establish what is my role and where do I fit. Is there scope for my input and how do I develop these systems and structures. I find it a really positive thing because there’s the opportunity to have an impact and help shape the organisation and culture from the ground up.
What is it like working at Space Tank Studio?
I really like working at Space Tank. There are obvious benefits that allow me to do my job more effectively like having access to equipment like 3D printers and vacuum formers and being able to rapidly generate through ideas. And on a personal level it’s also a really nice environment. Everyone’s really social and often you’ll be thinking or discussing a problem you’re trying to solve or technique you’re trying to work through and there’s a lot of people from very different backgrounds close by who are happy to have conversations and share ideas. I find it very supportive to be surrounded by other like-minded startups who understand your struggle. The community of entrepreneurs at Space Tank is quite an eclectic mix from people involved in niche manufacturing to developing technology products and I really appreciate how all these different viewpoints and advice helps me grow.
What are the advantages of working at Space Tank compared to being in your own space?
I think there are a lot of advantages working at Space Tank compared to being in an office by myself or without an engineering team. There’s the chance to collaborate with the people around us, people who have very different backgrounds and experiences and can provide different input. Also access to the scale of resources is really quite impressive. At such an early stage of our startup, it would be unrealistic for us to invest in equipment especially since we will most likely outsource our manufacturing. So Space Tank provides us affordable and flexible access to manufacturing machinery and rapid prototyping technology that we would otherwise find difficult to access on our own. It allows us to quickly trial different manufacturing methods while they’re being conceived and to iterate designs on the fly literally just across the corridor.
What decision making process led FREO2 to use Space Tank?
FREO2 chose Space Tank as its prototyping and manufacturing home particularly because of the COVID situation. We were all working remotely from home and trying to prototype and generate our concepts from our living rooms and through external suppliers. We were sending small quantities of parts for prototyping and waiting for long lead times to get the results sent back. This turned out to be just infeasible with the deadlines we were trying to achieve. One of our founding members did the Space Tank Bench to Business course and knew this would be the ideal solution to our problems. It’s really accelerated our progress and allowed us to meet our first major delivery of oxygen units to Uganda.
What makes your oxygen delivery system unique?
FREO2’s oxygen delivery system is unique because we design specifically for the context that thy would be implemented in. The products are designed to be robust and handle harsh hot, dusty, humid environments. The product must also not be a complex device that requires expensive tools, excessive maintenance or be expensive to operate. It’s designed to be a very accessible and easy to operate.
Can you tell us about your current project in Uganda?
FREO2’s current project in Uganda is a transition to scale project. It’s funded through Grand Challenges Canada and the Planet Wheeler Foundation. We’re trailing some of our technology products in health clinics in Uganda to assess the health impact and establish a social enterprise structure that can allow more reliable access to oxygen across health clinics. A typical oxygen concentrator can provide zero to ten litres per minute of oxygen and a baby might need zero to two. That means there’s about eight litres of oxygen per minute that’s not being utilised. An oxygen concentrator requires the same amount of power to operate regardless of how many litres it’s producing, so what you tend to see is that nurses in remote clinics will find their own ways to split the flow. They hack it essentially to provide more babies with oxygen. What we developed is a low cost and simple system that allows nurses to split that oxygen while maintaining oversight and control of the flow levels provided to each child. It makes the oxygen delivery safer and ensures the babies are receiving the proper care that they need.
What draws you to work on overseas projects?
I’m drawn to overseas projects and high impact social outcomes because I want to make a positive impact in the world. I feel like I’ve been very privileged in my life to have access to the resources and education that I have. I would like to use that to create a better world for everyone. I want to wake up every day knowing that the thing that I do for eight hours a day makes a difference.