A COVID-19 pivot from edtech to medtech was “the right thing to do” for InkSmithJackie Gill - April 7, 2020
What do you do during the COVID-19 pandemic when you have access to 3D printers, an army of laser cutters and an upwelling of community support?
If you’re like Kitchener-Waterloo edtech startup InkSmith, you put your people and machines to work creating certified PPE face masks for frontline hospital and healthcare workers, hire more than 100 new employees and supply the entire country – and beyond.
“We’re going to be running 24 hours a day for the next six months,” says founder and CEO Jeremy Hedges, amid a surge in hiring that promises to bring his team from under 10 to more than 100 to help with the effort.
The new team – which will receive a living wage with a benefits program and meal services – will be working day, evening and night on making a product called the Canadian Shield. In simple terms, it’s a three-part piece of reusable protective headgear, with a 3D printed visor, an elastic that holds it in place and a clear plastic shield that covers the face.
It seems like a 180 for the company that usually focuses on bringing STEAM (that’s science, technology, engineering, arts and math) programing into schools through 3D printers, laser cutters, robots and VR. Healthcare was never part of their plan.
But once Hedges learned about the face shield shortage from a family friend, and found out about how deep it ran from Neil Naik from the Kitchener-Waterloo Academy of Medicine, he didn’t think twice about pivoting. In fact, he had started the pivot within a day.
“The people we spoke to were scared,” Hedges says. “It was just the right thing to do. We had the right tools, we had the know-how, and it just made sense.”
First the community, then the country, then the world
At first, Hedges and his team set out to address local demand. “We were just going to spin up a bunch of 3D printers. We were going to print as many shields as we can, and we thought we could solve the local problem just with 3D printing,” he says.
On March 21, InkSmith put out a call to the community asking anyone with a 3D printer to help out. They posted a CAD model file for a headband on their website that volunteers could print at home and send in. Their team then sanitized the headbands before attaching them to clear plastic face shields they laser-cut themselves and providing them to hospitals or healthcare providers in need.
The response was huge. Within days, they had received about 1,000 donated parts, the company posted on Twitter – all a direct result of community participation.
“It was just the right thing to do. We had the right tools, we had the know-how, and it just made sense.”
– Jeremy Hedges, founder and CEO of InkSmith
At the time, the idea was to centralize support and make sure everything was safe before it leaves the door, Hedges says. “Our fear before was that if makers in their homes were trying to help out and they all inundated the hospitals with stuff that may not be clean, there was some danger there.”
But the demand for the Canadian Shield was bigger – way bigger – than Hedges or his team imagined.
“Every hospital in Canada has a need to get these shields in, and the United States is going to have an even bigger supply problem because the number of cases there is exploding,” he explains. While they were able to donate thousands of face masks with their initial effort, Hedges knew he had the resources and capability to scale things up into the tens of thousands to meet a rapidly growing demand.
“It’s chaos. We’re installing new machines every couple of hours and we’re scaling really fast. We just built a giant sanitation tent, we’ve got our medical device license and we’re a registered company that can manufacture and sell these products now,” Hedges says.
Plus, their masks are reusable, meaning they can be sanitized and worn over and over, unlike some other options on the market that need to be tossed after an eight-hour shift or sometimes after a single patient interaction. That’s an important note for Hedges who believes strongly in sustainability.
Since then, they’ve seen requests skyrocket, including an order of 300,000 face masks for Ontario Health. The added staff and equipment put InkSmith on track to manufacture enough face masks supply the entire country, Hedges says. And after that, they’ll set their sights south of the border.
None of this would be possible without community support, Hedges adds. “The city of Kitchener has been phenomenal to us. They pushed through a building permit for us in world record time. Communitech has been instrumental and helping us with all sorts of different needs across the business and getting our Health Canada license. A super supportive tech community, both individuals and institutions, have made this happen for us.”
A change for the better – and the long-term
For InkSmith, the shift from educational tech to protective gear isn’t that much of a stretch, says Hedges. It’s actually oddly fitting, considering what they want to teach kids in the classroom.
“It’s funny because we’re an education technology company, and the thing that we teach isn’t how to use tech. It’s thinking skills,” he says. “It’s all about empathizing with somebody that has a problem, defining what that problem is, then ideating how you can solve it with the tools you have at hand.”
Amid all the chaos, the company is still running its pre-pandemic business, and they have no plans to step away from that. “I really am passionate and I love what we do in education, so when things settle, I want to get back and focus on that again,” Hedges adds.
“It’s all about empathizing with somebody that has a problem, defining what that problem is, then ideating how you can solve it.”
– Jeremy Hedges
But the Canadian Shield isn’t just a temporary project. Hedges sees it becoming a core part of their business that they’ll continue pursuing even after the crisis is over.
“I think it’s important that we have a Canadian supply chain for safety equipment, so that in five or ten years when we have another crisis – and the unfortunate truth is we probably will – we’ll be ready.”
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Images courtesy of InkSmith