Published: March 30, 2021 By

Evan and Claire demonstrate the technology
Evan Kirk and Claire Meyer demonstrate how thermal testing for the PortaVax device is set up. Photo submitted. 

Drugmakers worked around the clock during the coronavirus pandemic to develop and test new vaccines to help mitigate the effects of COVID-19. And, in less than a year, companies like Pfizer and Moderna created safe and effective vaccines to distribute around the world.

But one big challenge remains for immunizing huge swaths of the world’s population: Transporting vaccine doses to rural communities. The Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines need to be kept cold (in the case of the Pfizer vaccine, super cold — around -70 degrees Celsius if kept longer than two weeks), which is a challenge for communities that lack reliable electricity or cannot afford ultra-low temperature coolers.

CU Engineering students have invented a novel solution to this global problem, which has the potential to affect millions of people living in rural areas around the world. Meet PortaVax, a portable vaccine carrier that can keep up to 250 vaccine doses cold for several days using insulation and dry ice. Students are still testing the device and tweaking its design, but they say early results are promising.

“Vaccines are distributed unequally around the world and, with the COVID-19 pandemic, it became apparent that mRNA vaccines were also going to be distributed unequally,” said Evan Kirk, a senior mechanical engineering student who is working on the project. 

PortaVax is just one of the many innovative ideas to come out of mechanical engineering’s “Engineering for Social Innovation” senior design capstone class, which encourages entrepreneurial-minded students to use their engineering skills for good. Other groups have developed businesses around intubation trainers for health care professionals, eco-friendly kegs, pop-up tent bike trailers and low-emission stoves for indoor cooking.

PortaVax, created by Kirk and fellow students Erik Skooglund, Brayden Shelley, Claire Meyer and Gary Yu, recently won second place in the New Venture Challenge social impact event; the group also hopes to succeed in the challenge’s broader competition at the end of March.

The students, who are coordinating most of their project over Zoom and email, were united at the start of the fall semester by their shared desire to address health care inequality. 

Around the same time, they began learning about the development of mRNA COVID-19 vaccines, which use a novel approach for protecting against infectious diseases. Instead of using a weakened or inactivated version of a germ, as has traditionally been the case with vaccines, mRNA vaccines teach the body’s cells to make a piece of a protein that triggers an immune response.

Gary Yu with device in backpack.
Gary Yu demonstrates the size and portability of the device. Photo submitted.

These mRNA vaccines, which are likely to become even more prevalent in the future, must be kept very cold to remain effective. Maintaining these ultra-low temperatures is easier in well-resourced, well-connected urban and suburban areas but very challenging in rural communities, particularly during the “last mile” of the vaccines’ journey. 

PortaVax, a three-gallon, hexagonal, bottle-shaped structure, extends the time vaccines are kept cold during the last mile of transport, without using electricity. In early tests, the device can maintain a temperature of -70 Celsius for four days.

The students are developing PortaVax with feedback and insights from experts at the Jodhpur School of Public Health in India, a connection facilitated by their industry mentor Param Singh (AeroEngr‘68; MS‘70; PhD‘74). 

Singh, principal investigator on the first completely implantable total artificial heart and one of the founders of heart pump company ABIOMED, serves as a member of the Mechanical Engineering Strategic Advisory Board and regularly supports Buffs in their academic and entrepreneurial endeavors. This is Singh’s third year mentoring mechanical engineering students in the “Engineering for Social Innovation” class.

“These students are getting a far broader education than just engineering,” said Singh. “They get to interact with the real world. They have to come up with, ‘What’s the need? What’s the market? Who’s going to pay for this? How are you going to sell it?’”

After the class ends and the students graduate this spring, they must decide whether to continue pursuing their business idea. So far, the PortaVax team hasn’t made any official commitments just yet, but the students plan to continue working on the device after graduation, and they’re in the early stages of applying for a patent.

Either way, they’ll have created a valuable, potentially life-saving device — and learned a lot along the way.

“I’m constantly surprised by the students,” said Dan Riffell, a mechanical engineering scholar-in-residence who teaches the course. “Early in the semester, the teams gel around an idea having never talked about it before or worked with the other students before. And they end up in a position where they’ve created a product and a company. They’re very motivated.”