In 2015, mechanical engineer John Joy came up with an award-winning concept of making oxygen readily available anywhere, anytime and, most importantly, during the golden hour – the first hour after a trauma or an accident. He won first prize in the Medical Gas Challenge, a hackathon organized by an external agency in collaboration with GE Healthcare in the same year.
By this time, he and fellow INSEAD alumnus Sanjay Pillai had also suffered the loss of family members. “These could have been avoided if people had access to oxygen,” Sanjay says in an interview with The best India.
In 2016, the two founded the company O2-Matic to turn this concept into reality. Being a white space product – meaning a product that fills a gap in the market – they were challenged to create and work in a whole new category. “There is no global benchmark, no competition for us,” says Sanjay.
To make oxygen readily available, the duo conceptualized the Portia C123, a portable oxygen generator that produces medical-grade oxygen in an emergency. It has a capacity of 200 liters and comes with two replaceable cartridges of 100 liters each. It requires no power to operate and the founders claim it only takes two steps to generate oxygen in 40 seconds.
It took the duo about six years to shape the product – from understanding the problem, to research and development, to conceptualizing the design and portability. The product was finally launched in 2021 and holds worldwide patents and trademarks, except in Denmark, which has a company of the same name.
To understand the need for the product, John, the Product R&D Manager, started by going out and talking with doctors from primary and secondary health care centers, hospitals and clinics, as well as patients suffering from long-term respiratory diseases.
His research led to the discovery that in 2015 there were only 234 places where oxygen was available, 60% of which were commercial grade and only 40% medical grade. Most of these oxygen sources were in cities. He also found that while access to oxygen is relatively easy within 25 km of a source, and oxygen can be made available in a day between 25 and 50 km, the supply chain begins to rupture and takes about 72 hours. Beyond 100 km, the power supply is negligible. “In rural areas, there was no supply chain, mainly because of logistics,” says John.
Even in cities, one has to wait for ambulances to reach patients as they are the closest source of oxygen. By the time these arrive, 50% of the golden hour is lost. “A shocking statistic in John’s research was that in India there are just over 35,000 ambulances nationwide. And not all of them have oxygen,” says Sanjay.
Two sources of oxygen currently exist, say the co-founders – cylinders and concentrators.
Cylinders need specialized storage and transportation, as well as skilled labor to operate. You also need special permission from the government to store bottles. Due to their size, deliveries take time, which makes them a rather localized solution.
The main issues with hubs are that they require a power source to plug in and are expensive to maintain. Since they take oxygen from the environment and purify it – anything over 95% is considered medical grade in India – and there’s only 21.5% oxygen in atmosphere, converting it to 100% pure oxygen takes time. They also cannot be transported to the scene of an emergency.
The duo had therefore identified their problem: a lack of access to oxygen.
Their solution was to build a device that would supplement cylinders and concentrators rather than replace them, making oxygen readily available in public places. “The idea was that we should be able to make it portable and make sure there’s no need for skilled labor or specialized storage conditions, and no transport protocols,” Sanjay explains.
The duo quickly realized that developing a medical grade product from scratch in India is not easy. A big challenge was identifying the right suppliers, from design to engineering, that you could trust and partner with safely.
Another challenge was during the design phase. “It had to work without electricity, so it can be functional anywhere, from the mountains to the sea,” says John. Next is logistics – if they had compressed oxygen, there would be a host of standards to follow when transporting it. “So we had to make the product in a way that we could ship it like a bottle of Coke, which is available in every corner of the country.”
With the help of a design firm in Bengaluru, they conceptualized one where, instead of compressed gas, they had all the components ready in isolation, and oxygen would only be produced when the chemicals were triggered .
John remembers when they came up with a design that addressed the logistics, the electrical problem, and the portability issues. “It was an amazing moment. We immediately had to build a prototype and see,” he recalls with a smile. Today, their product can be shipped by regular courier services nationwide, including to Delhi, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, etc.
Along with introducing a whole new category, they also have the job of educating people on the importance of having accessible oxygen. Without oxygen, at about five minutes, neurons suffer irreversible damage and the likelihood of death increases. “The bottom line for us is that it needs to be understood by the population as a whole, that oxygen is not for the heart, but for the brain,” Sanjay explains.
Portia allows oxygen to be delivered in an easy-to-use format while the patient waits for an ambulance. They bridge the gap between the trauma and the arrival of an ambulance that will provide continuous and stable medical care.
In their efforts to bring the product to market, they are guided by their IAS agent Madhavan Nambiar, who in addition to helping with connections within the ecosystem also offers assistance from a business perspective. “Just because something is unique and required by the market doesn’t mean it will sell. So it helps us bridge that gap,” says Sanjay.
The physician community has also been very supportive, validating the need for such a product. Dr. Vijay Chakravarthy, based in Chennai, says: “In an emergency situation, if a patient does not receive oxygen, their body tissues will slowly start to die. This will lead to heart strain. Important organs like heart, brain will also start dying.
He adds: “Currently, we use oxygen concentrators that run on electricity. Without electricity, they cannot be used. And the bottles are difficult to transport. Since they contain oxygen under pressure, they are also explosive, so there is a safety concern.
Dr. Chakravarthy also believes that at a cheaper price, their O2-Matic devices can be used daily in hospitals. “Within the hospital, when transporting patients for MRI, scanner, it will be convenient because it is very small. But it’s a bit expensive, that’s one of the downsides,” he says. “But normal concentrators give about 94-95% pure oxygen. The purity they claim is 99.7%,” he adds.
Commencing sales in 2021, with devices selling at Rs 34,720, they have sold “a few thousand units,” says Sanjay. They also have agreements with Bangalore and Cochin airports to install Portia there. Given their vision to make oxygen readily available in all public spaces, they are now focusing on more airports, educational institutions, hotels and buildings. They also envision Portia helping in rural areas, disaster relief efforts and more public spaces.
Learn more about their work and products on their website.
Edited by Divya Sethu