By Zach Winn
Over nearly seven years researching 3D printing systems in MIT’s Media Lab, Jifei Ou SM ’14, PhD ’19 began to suspect the work could lead to better products. He never could have imagined it would help address supply shortages caused by a global pandemic.
Since March of last year, Ou’s company, OPT Industries, has been working with hospitals to deliver a new type of nasal swab for Covid-19 testing. The swabs make use of thin, hairlike structures Ou developed while at MIT. Tiny woven lattices within OPT’s swabs allow them to absorb and release more fluid than conventional swabs.
The MIT spinout uses a continuous manufacturing approach that allows it to scale up printer production with demand. To date, it has supplied over 800,000 swabs to a number of health care and at-home testing organizations, helping to meet a shortage that had threatened hospitals’ testing capacity.
In the 12 months since Ou realized OPT could play a role in the pandemic response, the company’s small team has multiplied its manufacturing and distribution capabilities, partnered with large health care organizations like Kaiser Permanente, and begun developing other products that could benefit from the company’s design process.
“It’s very meaningful to be part of this effort,” Ou says. “It also feels particularly good because we’ve been developing materials with hairlike structures for a long time, so it’s like, ‘Aha, our expertise finally put to use!’”