Dieter Kurtenbach: Niners safety teams up with low-cost ventilator non-profit

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Unless you’re a next-level Niners fan or a Purdue alum, you probably don’t know about 49ers safety Jake Thieneman.

After all, he was an undrafted practice squad player who just finished his rookie season with the team after being signed in December.

I cover the team and had not talked to him before this week.

But I’m glad I was able to connect with him on the phone this past weekend, because you should know about what the 24-year-old is doing as he — like the rest of us — waits out the COVID-19 pandemic at his parents’ house in Indiana.

He’s taken on a side-gig between basement workouts.

The former Boilermaker and engineering major is now a spokesperson for The Ventilator Project — a non-profit startup in Boston that’s looking to create low-cost ventilators amid our worldwide shortage.

According to the University of Washington, the U.S. will need to build more than 25,000 ventilators in the next few weeks to meet the demand brought on by COVID-19. California will need as many as 1,500 ventilators by April 27, while New York needs close to 10,000 by April 9.

And those numbers are only estimates for if we can avoid worst-case scenarios.

This is a life-and-death issue and time is not our friend.

Thieneman came to the project through his friend Seth Mantel, whose brother, Tyler, is one of the founders.

“(I’m) not able to help in the design phase and being on the ground with that, but I’m just trying to help from the media perspective — raise awareness so they can get donations, partnerships, and people so they can make this thing happen,” Thieneman said via phone.

“They started two weeks ago. In 72 hours, they were able to recruit 15 engineers to design this thing and they had a functional prototype by (last) Wednesday.”

The engineering numbers are steadily increasing — pushing close to 200 now, per the Lafayette Journal & Courier.

The predicted price of their ventilators remains low, though.

That’s vital, because the desperate need for ventilators has caused their price to skyrocket. It’s simple capitalism: the supply is not meeting demand and states are bidding against each other, pushing a ventilator that normally costs $20,000 to now cost $50,000, according to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.

The Ventilator Project’s goal is to build ventilators that cost less than $2,000.

“They’re not the only project out there doing this. There are tons of people out there, designing ventilators,” Thieneman said. “But so much of the problem is that the big companies, that have resources, take a while to move, fast, and it doesn’t seem as if they’ll be able to meet demand. But then a lot of the designs that are coming out of other non-profits and start-ups use medical supplies in the design.”

“The thought process, from a design standpoint, was to build this using common, everyday parts that can be easily sourced and are in high supply right now.”

It’s a Silicon Valley-like bootstrap effort to solve a critical problem. Hopefully it — or something like it — can work.

The Ventilator Project prototype is pumping air, so the next step, per Thieneman, is going through every FDA specification and receiving emergency approval from the agency.

After that, manufacturing. Thieneman said the Ventilator Project is working with a “major manufacturer” to mass produce as soon as possible.

“The plan is to get as many out as possible to help as many COVID-19 victims in the US — and eventually around the world — as possible,” Thieneman said “But beyond that, ventilator technology is still a struggle. Developing and impoverished countries still need inexpensive, functional ventilators in those countries, so the plan is to keep this going even after COVID-19 and continue to deliver ventilators to people who need them.”

As for football, his other job, Thieneman is doing his best to stay in shape ahead of his second year in the NFL. The Niners re-signed him to the practice squad in February — he’ll be at Training Camp with the team, whenever that starts. There’s been guidance from the team on how to stay fit at home, but the NFL, like everyone else, is in wait-and-see mode.

If you’re interested in reading more about the Ventilator Project or donating, you can visit their website:


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