FARGO, N.D. — A Fargo company known for its high-tech aviation and agricultural electronics entrepreneurship has stepped up to manufacture machines to supplement hospital ventilators in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis.
Barry Batcheller, chairman of the board of Appareo Systems of Fargo, confirmed what North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum revealed in his daily pandemic briefing on Monday, March 30.
Batcheller said the North Dakota Department of Emergency Services contacted the company late last week to see if they could provide technology for emergency ventilators.
Appareo, for whom Batcheller’s son, David Batcheller, is president and chief executive officer, is a manufacturer of devices and was “looking around to get involved in this type of thing,” Barry says.
David Batcheller said that as the governor described in his press briefing, the public and private sector partnerships are key to being able to move quickly toward finding solutions to help our state and nation during this unprecedented time.
“As a privately-held North Dakota based technology company who has the ability to do rapid proof of concept work, we have the fortunate ability to move incredibly fast, and we are excited to contribute to the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic,” David Batcheller said.
North Dakota has about 400 of the more sophisticated hospital ventilators that are approved by the Food and Drug Administration, and which Barry Batcheller understands are worth about $30,000. The devices Appareo makes would be less expensive — certainly less than $2,000 each — and used when the more sophisticated device is not available.
“Hopefully, they’ll never be used,” he said.
Appareo officials contacted the University of Minnesota, which some weeks ago began working on a program for manufacturing emergency devices. Barry says the University of Minnesota was also working with companies Boston Scientific and Medtronic for participating in a development of a device that would be available on an “open source” design, meaning the design would be available to all manufacturers during the crisis.
Dr. Stephen Richardson, a University of Minnesota cardiac anesthesiologist, had invented the machine and has done some live animal testing and has applied to the FDA for emergency use authorization. The university sent Appareo its drawings last week.
"We believe that this could be easily scaled in many, many different designs," Richardson said in a video produced by the university.
Some Appareo engineers volunteered to work overtime to create the first prototype.
Production at Appareo could start late this week. About 10 to 12 workers will work shifts around the clock to make the devices. The company will make about 2,000 of them, which will be the property of the state for emergency preparedness.
Batcheller referenced a device that is sold under the brand name Ambu bag and also is known generically as a manual resuscitator or self-inflating bag. The device, often the kind seen on ambulances, is where someone physically pushes a squeeze ball, using the device to respirate a patient.
“If we run out of FDA-certified hospital ventilators, what do you do?” Batcheller says. “You can’t put this Ambu bag on them. You need a mechanical assist that you can put in, that squeezes the bag and allows number of patients to be ventilated.”
Batcheller, a native of New York, came to Fargo to attend North Dakota State University in the 1960s and got an engineering degree. He worked for Steiger Tractor Co. in Fargo in the 1970s, and then Case-IH, and in 1987 was among those starting Phoenix International, a company created by former Steiger officials. Phoenix in 1999 was sold to Deere & Co. In 2003, Batcheller initially worked for Deere but then started Appareo (Latin for “to appear”). As part of the Phoenix departure, Batcheller initially was prevented from working in the agricultural market, so went into aviation. In 2014, Appareo added agriculture back into the mix, the company created Intelligent Agricultural Solutions, a joint venture with AGCO.
In late 2018, Batcheller announced a dream that the Red River Valley region should be a center of development of ag equipment including unmanned aerial technology, machine learning and artificial intelligence. That vision has manifested into the Grand Farm project near Fargo, which involves a development farm as well as a code academy and connections with venture capitalists.