By Nathan Frandino

(Reuters) – As U.S. demand for ventilators skyrockets during the coronavirus pandemic, smaller medical device makers are simplifying their designs and pushing other work aside to make more of the devices.

The United States had equipment to provide ventilation – which is needed to help patients breathe when they can no longer do so on their own – to about 160,000 people, according to research compiled by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health and Security.

But as the outbreak ramps up, tens of thousands more units will be needed, which has prompted automakers and others to look at how to make them. President Donald Trump on Friday signed an order requiring carmaker General Motors Co <GM.N> to produce ventilators to fight the coronavirus pandemic under the Defense Production Act, accusing the automaker of “wasting time.”

The shortage has prompted medical device firms to scale up fast. Darren Saravis, CEO of Long Beach, California-based medical device engineering firm Nectar Inc, launched a new company BreathDirect to make a slimmed-down version of a ventilator. The new device will cost about $10,000 and has simpler settings than other models.

Saravis said it will be faster to manufacture but can still handle the needs of about 90% of critical care patients.

“For me, this is really about me not having any other choice. I would never have been able to live with myself if I didn’t step up and do this because I have the ability, I have the team, we have the resources here, and I don’t want to wake up and know that I was responsible for people not living,” Saravis said.

BreathDirect aims to complete its first unit by April 5, with its first production-ready ventilator made by April 19, Saravis said, though exact timing depends on approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Eventually, it hopes to produce 3,500 ventilators per week by May and 40,000 ventilators per month in June, Saravis said.

To hit the deadline, Saravis tapped contract manufacturer Evolve Manufacturing Technologies Inc, a Fremont, California-based company already registered with the FDA and is also making coronavirus test kits. Noreen King, Evolve’s chief executive, said the company, which also works on ultrasound machines and spinal surgery products, has pushed aside about 10% of current projects to focus on equipment for the pandemic.

“When I was listening to the news, and everyone was really dying for these ventilators, I realized this is such a tragic thing because I understand how difficult it is to make,” King said.

(This story has been refiled to fix garble in second paragraph)

(Reporting by Nathan Frandino in Fremont, California; writing by Stephen Nellis in San Francisco; Editing by David Gregorio)