The engineer challenging intellectual property for better health

Vaibhav Chhabra at the Take Care Festival in Geneva. (Credit: Aylin Elci)

The Covid-19 pandemic revealed the limitations of the health industry. Indian engineer Vaibhav Chhabra, who attended the Geneva Health Forum, wants to harness people’s ability to make, create and innovate collectively to surpass the sector's challenges.

Vaibhav Chhabra is the creator of one of India’s first so-called fabrication laboratories, otherwise known as a “makerspace” – a workshop where people can meet, exchange ideas and create. His space is called the Maker’s Asylum, “because it’s a crazy place for makers,” he says laughing. During the pandemic, the lab came to the forefront of the international scene thanks to its online open-source manuals to make face shields, and repair oxygen concentrators when the country was going through a major shortage.

Geneva Solutions met him at Taking Care Together, a grassroots festival organised by civil society to include alternative ways of thinking in the health sector. The event, which took place alongside the Geneva Health Forum from 30 April to 8 May,  brought together a community of over 100 actors from all horizons, including Chhabra.

For the mechanical engineer, having an open village attached to the health forum is a way to allow a diverse crowd and to include outsiders from the healthcare business like him. “The fact that we’re all in the same room allows for the collaborations to happen,” he says.

As a student in Boston, he first got a taste for fab labs at MIT. There, he had access to makerspaces and joined a project on a low cost and portable eye diagnosis machine. Soon enough, he was asked to move back to India, where he is originally from, to continue trials, collect data and get input on the device.

While there were fewer administrative hurdles  in Mumbai than in Boston, “there weren’t any labs or places to create prototypes, and no communities to meet and share,” says Chhabra, who explains he had to go through service providers for testing. This was back in 2013.

‘We have the perfect garage story’

That’s when Chhabra decided it was time to set up India’s first makerspace. “We have the perfect garage story,” he says jokingly, with reference to the humble beginnings of global tech companies. The lab was set up in the garage of a restaurant owner who simply told Chhabra and his friends to start paying when they could. “This allowed flexibility to try out our concept,” he says.

He had no business plan and the idea felt out of place in India, where necessity has priority over creativity, according to the engineer. “At that time nobody thought this space could exist, but it did,” he says. While it was initially designed to share equipment such as donated 3D printers and Chhabra’s own carpentry tools, soon enough, people started to come to the space to learn how to use the instruments of India’s first community makerspace.

Artists, architects, engineers, film makers designing props and accountants, who had never seen such a space, all converged at the Maker’s Asylum with one common passion towards creating. With time, the lab grew, found partners – including the government of France – and moved around several times until it settled down about 600 km south of Mumbai, in Goa, where lots of designers and artists had moved to be closer to nature, according to Chhabra.

Maker’s Asylum set up a full-blown campus that combined 3D printing, laser cutting, metal and wood work, and enough space to host up to 150 people. But this move came just before the pandemic hit. “Our space kept growing but all of a sudden, all of our programmes got cancelled,” Chhabra recalls.

While scary at first, the pandemic allowed him and his team to rethink the accessibility of their content. “As we saw that PPE material was becoming scarce, we started thinking about how to make 1,000 face shields for health workers without any materials,” says Chhabra.

It took 21 design iterations to figure this out, as well as the engineer and two of his colleagues sleeping in the lab to be able to use their tools despite the lockdown. Once they posted the instructions online, 20 other makers joined them. Among them were paediatricians, who weren’t working at the time, filmmakers, and even chefs.

While the world’s biggest vaccine manufacturer, the Serum Institute of India was stalled by licence approvals and warehouse space, over 42 fab labs in the country joined forces with Maker’s Asylum to create the M-19 collective, which stands for makers fighting Covid-19. Their philosophy is “centralised open source design philosophy with decentralised manufacturing” and their aim is to “gather the best minds to solve the pressing challenges of this country and execute with agility”. Their instructions required easily available foam board and plastic, basic assembly skills, and laser cutting machines. The youngest member of the collective was a 12-year-old who opened a lab in his parents’ house. In 49 days, the collective made one million face shields.

“It wasn’t a one-way street, we were also learning from other labs,” says Vaibhav Chhabra. Around the world, about 48 million masks were made by makerspaces, of which at least one million were made in India.

The project was sustained through crowdfunding, philanthropy of private companies, and many hospitals and police buying shields directly from the makers at 25 rupees a piece (about CHF0.30). “It was not about making any profit,” says Chhabra who also organised cavalcades of police vans and ambulances to transport the PPE.

The Swiss link

India was among the worst hit countries by the Covid-19 pandemic. In October 2020, as half of the world's population lacked access to appropriate health care, India and South Africa requested an intellectual property waiver on medical tools to fight Covid-19 from the World Trade Organisation (WTO). “The rapid scaling up of manufacturing globally is an obvious crucial solution to address the timely availability and affordability of medical products to all countries in need,” they argued. Last week, the WHO estimated that around 4.74 million deaths could be directly or indirectly linked to the pandemic in the country, a figure that the government disputes.

While many developing countries were in favour of India’s proposed measure, Europe, Switzerland and the US opposed it. On May 3, the WTO’s response was leaked in the form of a “meaningful proposal, without prejudice to respective positions”. According to Doctors Without Borders (MSF), the text was “NOT the intellectual property Waiver for COVID-19 medical tools people need.” Public health activists also called President Biden to reject the proposal ahead of the Global Covid-19 Summit hosted May 12. While the US announced it would “share critical technologies”, it didn’t mention the WTO deal.

Still, in May 2021 as Covid-19 cases surged throughout India and an oxygen shortage took place, many countries including Switzerland, sent material to support the country. Oxygen concentrators – small devices that provide extra oxygen – were in dire need but machines broke down easily either through wear and tear or humidity.

Once again, Maker’s Asylum activated its network to not only repair, but also manufacture oxygen concentrators locally. The team received a grant from the EU and collaborated with Cambridge University on this project. It’s also one of the main topics Chhabra discussed in Geneva with the leaders of health organisations and big development organisations that sent these sorts of concentrators.

Maker’s Asylum teamed up with Open source medical supplies, a consortium of makers across the world working on open source projects to contribute to the needs created by the Covid-19 pandemic. Through that work, they launched the M-19 O2 oxygen concentrator, a machine made in India for local use.

In Geneva, Chhabra’s other activities included a session at the university to make face shields, a prototype of which he proudly carries on his festival badge. “Ecology wasn’t the priority at the time because of the emergency crisis, but we still integrated that component into our design from day one,” he says, pointing to the headband of the visor that can be reused.

‘Making is like yoga’

As the lab took an educational turn, reusing materials and caring for the planet became increasingly central in its mission. Students can take a course on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and even get credit at university for it. The founder’s current favourite programme is the Do It Yourself hour for children eight years old and above.

“Very early on you make things, and making is like yoga – you can’t learn it, you need to practice it,” he says. Children who attend build objects such as rocket launchers and little robots for fun.

According to the founder, after two to three months, the young makers no longer want to buy toys but want to manufacture them themselves and adds that “there is a shift from the consumerism mindset to the maker mindset” – a mindset which Chhabra proudly shows off with the “make break create” badge pinned to his collar.

“The philosophy of Makers Asylum is that only by making and breaking can you start to create,” he says.

This philosophy was also applied to what Chhabra calls the “fluid organisation’s organic journey”. Although it stemmed out of a healthcare project, today the lab is an alternative educational organisation that focuses on learning by doing on social impact topics and is funded by the revenues of its educational programmes and funding grants. The business man already has partnerships lined up down the road, including to reopen a hub in Mumbai.


This article was produced for the Breathing Games Association – which organised the 1st edition of the Taking Care Together festival from 30 April to 8 May 2022 –, Open Geneva, and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation