After developing ventilators in response to the fast-moving COVID-19 emergency, Gekko Systems – a company known for its mining equipment, technology and services – still had a mountain of work to complete before the life-saving devices could be deployed to hospitals in Australia or overseas.
The company had to satisfy strict regulatory requirements for its GeVentor product before becoming the first Australian designed ventilator to receive approval to proceed to manufacture under the Therapeutic Goods Administration's COVID exemption process.
It was at this point in September 2020 that managing director and co-founder of Gekko Systems, Elizabeth Lewis-Gray, said the company had realised its potential.
“For us it very much identified to our team that they truly are world-class. We've always been a global company and we've always been at the forefront of our industry, but I suppose it took this experience for our team to really understand that actually they are a world-class, world-leading design team and that's been exciting for the organisation,” Ms Lewis-Gray said.
“This process was crazy difficult for us. We really had to step up to learn and find new skills, and collaborate with our local and broader community. We were blown away by how many people contacted us offering help.”
The idea for the GeVentor came about after Committee for Ballarat CEO Michael Poulton was contacted by senior Ballarat Health Services physicians who were worried regional areas could potentially miss out on securing ventilators if ICU beds began filling up in the capital cities.
Mr Poulton flagged the idea to Ms Lewis-Gray in an unexpected phone call.
“I then spoke to my husband Sandy who was away on a fishing holiday and said, ‘what do you reckon, can you develop a ventilator’? And he said, ‘I’ll have a look but yeah, I reckon I could’.
“So he came back early from his trip and went to our spares department at work and pulled out some gadgets that he brought home to his workshop. Within five days he had an operating device that could actually ventilate people.”
Ms Lewis-Gray then alerted the state government to the ventilator but was aware that it could be a competitive process with Melbourne-based medical device makers also working on their own devices. She and Mr Poulton engaged with their connections to find community support to co-fund the project. They raised more than $200,000 locally before getting funding approval to get the unit to manufacturing readiness. Funding from the Victorian Government and the local community was announced within three weeks from that out-of-the-blue phone call.
Ms Lewis-Gray and Mr Gray, Gekko Systems’ technical director, were connected to anaesthetist Dr Doug Paxton who worked closely with Ballarat Health Services. Dr Paxton played a critical role with Mr Gray and the Gekko engineering team in designing and developing the ventilator’s functionality and design.
Ms Lewis-Gray’s career includes working as a research analyst with a stockbroking company, followed by strategic planning, treasury and investor relations for a listed company.
The idea to create Gekko Systems came after she moved to Avoca, which has a population of about 1,000, to live with her husband and be able to sell his inventions. It was then she studied a Master of Business Management at Federation University. The couple co-founded the company in 1996 and have specialised in the development and manufacture of mineral processing equipment for the global market.
Gekko Systems is producing ventilators for the Victorian Government and some will be deployed to Tasmania. The company is also exploring the possibility of sending the ventilators to overseas markets, particularly developing countries.
The idea to create a ventilator seems at odds with their core business, but Ms Lewis-Gray said there were similarities between the industries that gave them the confidence to take on the project.
“When you look at the core technology and the core skillsets that you need, the technology – what we build for our global business – it's all based around pneumatics, hydraulics and control systems and the core technologies that you need in the ventilator, albeit at a very much smaller scale, are pneumatics, hydraulics and control systems,” Ms Lewis-Gray said.
“And of course, in the mining industry, if something goes wrong on a billion-dollar plant, it has to be fixed today or tomorrow. There's no option of wheeling in an alternative technology or another piece of equipment, so we are very agile and very responsive to any sort of issues that need to be addressed. And because we’ve operated globally and sourced technology globally, we've got fantastic logistics capability networks and that was part of the core competency required for an accelerated design solution.”
For Ms Lewis-Gray, seeing the Ballarat medical and business communities come together has been an eye-opener and a highlight of the process.
“We didn't develop the ventilator to make a big business out of it; we went in at the time because it was needed. But we do think that there is an opportunity. The way the Ballarat business and research community responded blew me away. We’ve been amazed by the skill, talent and capability in Ballarat where there are six universities with research and training capacity within the Ballarat health network. There really is potential for Ballarat to be a med-tech hub.”