Vocation and avocation

Q&A with Norm McCombs of AirSep
Wednesday, January 30, 2013

BUFFALO, N.Y. – Norm McCombs, the senior vice president of research and development at AirSep, has hit a milestone or two in his long career as an engineer and inventor. He holds more than 40 U.S. patents and he’s received the Thomas A. Edison Patent Award from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, not once but twice (2004 and 2007). But when he found out he would be awarded a National Medal of Technology and Innovation from President Barack Obama in February, for his work on pressure swing adsorption (PSA), a method of separating gases that made oxygen concentrators possible? Well, “it’s preposterous!” he said. Here’s what McCombs had to say about everything from his humble beginnings to the future of home oxygen therapy.

HME News: What drew you to the field of engineering?

Norm McCombs: I had skills in math and science, and I started working in a lab when I was 19, and I’ve been involved in R&D ever since. I worked in a lab because I was enamored with technology and the idea of being an inventor—that’s what drove me. When I received the Edison award, it was a dream. It put me in the same breathe as Edison.

HME: What got you working on PSA, which, according to the announcement, uses synthetic zeolites as molecular sieves to collect targeted gases?

McCombs: I’m often asked how I come up with the things that I’ve come up with. My answer is always that there has never been one big eureka moment. It’s a lot of little ones. Along the way, you realize you’ve done something original and you build up to the climax but you don’t realize that you’ve gotten there until later.

HME: Initially, you developed oxygen systems for everything from waste-water treatment plants to car repair shops. What steered you toward medical applications?

McCombs: In the back of my mind, I had thoughts about the medical applications of PSA, but I was afraid of the risk and liability associated with it. We were raising English bulldogs at the time, and there was a vet I knew really well who was using oxygen in the surgery and recovery rooms, and I developed a system. Then Don McCune from the local division of W.R. Grace, which was in the business of distributing containerized oxygen, read a story about the system in the local newspaper and he called and asked me if I could develop a system for human use. That’s where the first portable concentrator came from, which was sold to the John Bunn Company.

HME: From there, how did you progress to the smaller and lighter concentrators of today?

McCombs: It’s all process engineering. The idea with adsorption is to conserve as much of the oxygen as possible. You create a cycle with the appropriate valves and timing to minimize the amount of oxygen you throw away. Each step of the process, you think, what can I do to minimize the loss of oxygen.

HME: You’ve gone from a 92-pound unit to a 1.8-pound wearable unit named the Focus. Where will you go next?

McCombs: The future is still all about size and weight, and the battery life of these units. We don’t want people using containerized oxygen; we want them getting oxygen by plugging into a supply through the wall. With 80% to 85% of patients accepting pulse dose, our goal is to incorporate that into a system, keep it as small and low cost as it can be, and keep it quiet with long battery life. This is where we’re going.

HME: When did the impact that your work has made hit you?

McCombs: I got an email from a guy in England whose wife has COPD, and he was thanking us for developing the Focus. His wife felt self-conscious about going to the market and got tired lugging around a container. Now that she has the Focus, she’s a different woman. What he was thanking us for—those are the reasons we made the Focus in the first place.

HME: What does this national medal mean to you?

McCombs: I was born in a shack, and I lived and went to school within a three-mile radius. Coming where I came from, I didn’t even know if I’d learn to read and write, but I was supported and encouraged by my parents, teachers, coaches and eventually my wife. To go to the West Wing of the White House and get this medal put around my neck—it’s unreal.

HME: You’re 75. Shouldn’t you be retired?

McCombs: I’m going to be 76 soon, but I’m still invigorated by my work. It’s my vocation and avocation. If being retired is doing what you want to do, I’ve been retired all my life.