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The University of Southampton

Generous donation from alumni takes Southampton Coronavirus Response Fund to over half a million pounds

Published: 26 June 2020
PeRSo personal respirator
Early prototype of the PeRSo respirator created by academics at the University of Southampton.

The amazing generosity of two graduates has taken the University of Southampton’s Coronavirus Response Fund to over half a million pounds.

A donation of more than £168,000 from Dr Alison Steele and Stefan Cross QC, who met at the University in the 1980s, will provide important funding to bring the University’s PeRSo project, a unique personal respirator, to healthcare and other key frontline staff tackling COVID-19 in communities around the world.

The device was first developed into a prototype in March within just a week, and since then has been tested on hospital wards in Southampton and manufactured at scale in less than a month.

Keeping healthcare staff, and other crucial key workers including care home staff, safe on the front line, and giving them equal access to quality resources, is something both Alison and Stefan are very passionate about. They have doctors in the family on the frontline and Stefan’s organisation Action 4 Equality (Scotland) Limited, campaigns for equal pay rights.

The generous donation comes from Action 4 Equality, which Stefan set up in 2005. Stefan said: “Getting quality protective equipment to frontline staff, who are fighting this pandemic, no matter where they are in the world, is incredibly important and something we feel strongly is a human right.

“The PeRSo project, developed by the University of Southampton, embodies that ethos and we are very proud to support it. The ambition and speed at which the Southampton team were able to come together, develop the concept and distribute it to frontline clinical staff was very impressive. We want to support this work and help it go even further so other members of the worldwide community have the same access to this important equipment.”

Alison and Stefan met at the University of Southampton when they toured their halls of residence as they embarked on their study of Medicine and Law, respectively. They married in 1986 and have since continued to be involved with the University through the provision of advice and collaboration with staff and students as well as significant philanthropic donations; this latest gift taking their giving to over £600,000.

Stefan Cross and Dr Alison Steele
Stefan Cross and Dr Alison Steele at the University of Southampton

In 2018, Southampton Law School launched the Stefan Cross Centre for Women, Equality & Law to raise awareness of discrimination against women and girls. The Centre’s research looks to investigate the causes of this discrimination and seek effective solutions through collaborative work at Southampton and across the sector.

“Our experience at the University of Southampton has guided and supported our lives both personally and professionally. We are proud to give something back to the Southampton community and look forward to seeing how the PeRSo project develops over the coming months” Stefan said.

PeRSo consists of a fabric hood which covers the wearer's head and a plastic visor to protect their face. Clean air is provided to the hood via a High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filter with a belt-mounted or pocket pack which can be worn continuously for several hours and is reusable after appropriate cleaning. Crucially, the transparent visor allows patients to see faces, adding vital human connection in their time of need, as well as providing safe, comfortable, temperature-controlled protection for key workers.

The significant donation will fund a post-doctoral researcher to help build and test further prototypes of the respirator, including a lightweight version for care home staff and other frontline workers, plus a flat-pack, low-cost version for prompt use in developing countries.

The project will focus on refining the equipment to best serve the range of different sectors in will be used in, including care homes. This will include a new lightweight hood with integrated fan and filter for widespread deplopyment across the community, and investigating the possibility of using solar panel rechargeable batteries for use in developing countries and sharing regulatory, design and research information with local manufacturers, research communities and design experts.


Stefan Cross and Dr Alison Steele
Stefan Cross and Dr Alison Steele as they are today

The project was initiated by Professor Paul Elkington, a consultant and professor in respiratory medicine at the University, together with Professor Hywel Morgan and colleagues in electronics and computer science (ECS) and engineering. Collaborating with industry experts, they have now made the project a reality with plans to manufacture 50,000 hoods a week for NHS staff.

Professor Elkington said: “We are incredibly grateful for the generosity shown by Alison and Stefan with this wonderful donation that will enable us to continue to develop the respirators for healthcare and other workers, such as care home staff, in the UK and abroad.

“Healthcare staff are constantly at risk of being exposed to COVID-19 infection and improved personal protective equipment (PPE) will be needed as we move to the chronic phase of the pandemic. We are proud to be able to offer a way of helping keep those vital workers safe.

“PeRSO is an excellent example of industry, universities and hospitals combining their expertise and answering the call to develop solutions needed to save lives in the current crisis. To be given such a generous donation like this is a testament to the hard work and dedication of everyone involved.”

Professor Morgan added: “We are highly appreciative of this generous donation, which will allow us to build on our success and develop the next generation PeRSo for roll out into the wider community as soon as possible.”

The PeRSo project was fortunate to receive support at an early stage by other significant donors and from funding provided by The Southampton Coronavirus Response Fund. The Fund was launched on 3 April to support and accelerate the University’s research and other activities aimed at tackling the global pandemic. To date, the Fund has received donations from 1,150 staff, students and alumni from nearly 40 countries as well as members of the local community in Southampton. The University has been able to grant funds to a number of interdisciplinary research teams developing new ways of tackling the disease. Funds have also been distributed to support student nurses and medics working on the frontline.

A summary of the University’s COVID-19 research and activity can be seen in this film.

Further donations are urgently required, details of the Southampton Coronavirus Response Fund can be found here:

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