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A Tech Firm's Pivot To Ventilator Repair Turns Personal


Across California, companies of all types are trying to step up during the coronavirus pandemic. Some have donated money. Others have ramped up production of essential supplies like hand sanitizers and face masks. NPR's John Ruwitch reports on a tech firm that switched gears to fix broken ventilators before the work got personal for one of its employees.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: The company is called Bloom Energy. It makes environmentally friendly fuel cells.

SUSAN BRENNAN: Clearly, we have a different function than a ventilator.

RUWITCH: Susan Brennan is chief operating officer and head of manufacturing at Bloom, based in Silicon Valley. She'd never seen a ventilator in use before, let alone fix one.

BRENNAN: Our CEO saw immediately the synergies between what a ventilator does and particularly what our fuel cell does.

RUWITCH: What it does is convert natural gas, bio gas or hydrogen into electricity. Bloom fuel cells look like big, metallic electrical boxes. They power buildings. And inside, they have pumps, valves and sensors that bring in gas and oxygen.

BRENNAN: So he called me and said, do you think that we can do this?

RUWITCH: She did.

BRENNAN: The way I approach problems is, you know, if it's in the art of the possible, we'll figure it out.

RUWITCH: Brennan handpicked what she calls a tiger team of engineers. With help from the California Office of Emergency Services, they worked out a process for troubleshooting old ventilators. The company then converted a storage space in Sunnyvale, Calif., and another in Delaware into makeshift workshops. Within days, they were reviving mothballed ventilators from state and national stockpiles, checking batteries, testing sensors, gauging airflow and valves.

BRENNAN: We're really there to turn these things quickly. It's like a NASCAR pit crew.

RUWITCH: About 60 people at the company now play a role. One of them is Chris Frederickson, senior director of quality and reliability engineering at Bloom Energy.

CHRIS FREDERICKSON: I was working at home for about two weeks. And, you know, there's a little bit of a helpless feeling.

RUWITCH: So he volunteered.

FREDERICKSON: I thought this is really a great opportunity to actually get into the game and actually do something that can make a difference.

RUWITCH: About a week after Fredrickson joined the team, the crisis took an unexpected personal turn. He learned that a relative was hospitalized on a ventilator in Los Angeles County, where Bloom, it turns out, had just shipped about 200 refurbished ventilators.

FREDERICKSON: So it really kind of hit home for me that wow, this may have an impact directly to our family.

RUWITCH: Lately, there's been some good news. Doctors took his relative off the ventilator. And the man appears to be doing well. Fredrickson doesn't know if he was on one of the ventilators that Bloom refurbished. It doesn't matter, though. Someone else's loved one probably is. John Ruwitch, NPR News.


John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.
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