PPE problem-solving puts B.C. innovators to test

Tech companies deploying projects aimed at fighting COVID-19 in as little as a week as government calls on private enterprise to help efforts

A frontline health-care worker dons "ear savers" made by Vancouver Makers for Emergency Response and Support (VMERS) | Credit: VMERS

“We drove hard,” said Sue Paish the day after a team of software developers unveiled an online platform allowing suppliers to better manage and source medical supplies and personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline health-care workers.

The drive the CEO of the Vancouver-based Digital Technology Supercluster speaks of helped deliver the $100,000 COVID-19 Supply Hub to provincial health officials in the span of just seven days, from concept to actualization.

Burnaby-based Traction on Demand Inc. built the platform and contributed $50,000 to the project, while San Francisco’s Salesforce.com Inc. (NYSE: CRM) covered $10,000 and the supercluster covered the remainder.

“We have been overwhelmed in the most positive way with responses from industry to solve the problems created by the COVID-19 environment,” Paish told Business in Vancouver.

And outside the infrastructure of the Digital Technology Supercluster — a program aimed at stoking partnerships between private enterprises, researchers and post-secondary institutions — independent projects throughout the B.C. innovation community have been springing forth and operating at timelines similar to Paish’s.

A team of engineers, suppliers and manufacturers at Vancouver startup Ocalink spent eight days designing a ventilator made from only 41 components.

“From the very beginning we said we need a design that’s ultimately scalable to a million units in 90 days and anything less just isn’t very useful,” CEO Corbin Lowe said, adding he hoped the units would cost a few thousand dollars each once in production.

“It does only exactly what the respiratory department needs for this specific virus and it doesn’t do anything extra.”

Lowe likened the idea to a microwave that only has an on-and-off switch — no special settings for popcorn.

His team built the device with input from Vancouver Coastal Health to ensure it meets all the needs of health-care professionals dealing with the pandemic.

The next step is awaiting regulatory approval from health authorities such as Health Canada.

If approved, the goal is to produce nearly 10,000 a day by April 15.

“So initially, everyone was really excited by ventilators but there was this extreme pragmatism and urgency to do things that would fill the gap and get to market as quickly as possible,” said Kevin R. Hart, CEO of Vancouver-based TZOA (Clad Innovations Ltd.), whose company is involved with an initiative to provide free gear and resources to frontline health-care workers.

That effort, the Vancouver Makers for Emergency Response and Support (VMERS), has enlisted 700 volunteers to develop everything from “ear savers” (headbands with buttons that make face masks more comfortable to wear) to small chambers equipped with ultraviolet lights that can sterilize PPE in 30-60 minutes.

Hart said these projects are much quicker to come together than ventilators and can be undertaken by smaller companies trying to help flatten the curve.

VMERS is using commonly used materials based on open-source designs to make production as expedient as possible.

But Hart said there has been some pushback from health authorities.

“We don’t want to [deliver] equipment that malfunctions or doesn’t do what it promises,” he said.

“So there are good reasons why the process of procurement is going a bit slower than we would like it to be but it is really imperative that some of these designs and equipment are pushed into the places where they’re needed as quickly as possible.”

Hart added he has been impressed by the speed of government procurement, which has approved some orders in the course of just one day.

But he said volunteers are encountering challenges with the supply chain as some raw materials — for example, the plastic required for face shields — are getting harder to come by.

Meanwhile, LNG Productions Inc. (LNG Studios) has been running five 3D printers at maximum capacity to produce about 35 face shields a day for frontline health-care workers.

“They’re in dire and critical need for this protective gear,” said CEO Leon Ng.

After submitting prototype face shields to hospitals for approval in later March, the LNG Studios team has since delivered units to Vancouver General Hospital, St. Paul’s Hospital and Richmond Hospital.

Lions Gate Hospital, Surrey Memorial Hospital and Burnaby Hospital have now all contacted LNG Studios about tapping into the next available supply.

LNG Studios launched a campaign for the next round of production, which needs $2,000 to cover the cost of printing 60 additional face shields.

After finding an open-source 3D model for the face shields, the company’s 3D-printing assets have been redeployed to print the visor portion of the face shields.

The company is working with local plastic suppliers to supply and laser-cut transparent acrylic sheets for the face shields.

In a follow-up email to BIV, Ng said reusable PPE is vital for frontline workers.

“The burn rate of traditional PPE is too high and supply is critically low,” he said.

The campaign is also asking for suppliers who can help source and cut additional acrylic sheets.

Many initiatives kicked into high gear after Ottawa mandated on March 20 that the nation’s network of superclusters tap its 1,800 members to come up with ways to address the pandemic.

The nation’s five superclusters have access to $950 million in funding, with $153 million of that going to the Digital Technology Supercluster.

The West Coast supercluster already had 30 projects in the works prior to the call from government.

“We were, I will say, ahead of the ask. We were developing a pipeline of potential projects that could address specific issues relevant to COVID,” Paish said.

The Digital Technology Supercluster is now fielding 130 proposals aimed at tackling the impacts of the pandemic, with projects ranging from the development of platforms to help deal with mental health issues and rebuild community engagement, to data-sharing related to the genes of the virus.

Paish said even before the pandemic her organization was tailored to identify key players that could tackle endeavours such as this.

“Once we identified the problem [managing supplies] along with the health system and the government of B.C., it was not hard to identify some potential solution-providers and bring them around the table,” she said.

“I am both impressed but not surprised that the Canadian business community and industry writ large has come forward to identify ways we can help Canada get through this.”