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Chicago Start-Ups Join Forces to Supply Vital PPE

By Kevin Beerman / April 27, 2020

In the beginning, the numbers looked grim. 

Across the United States, it became clear early on that the impending coronavirus was going to deplete a woefully under-prepared medical system on all fronts. There wasn’t enough of anything to respond to this crisis, from top to bottom. Chicago would not be spared. 

As events unfolded, one major area of need emerged very quickly: personal protective equipment, or, as it has become colloquially known, PPE. Workers on the front lines, essential agents in the fight against the ravaging effects of COVID-19, need to protect themselves so that they can continue to treat the ill and infirm. With a shortage of equipment for doing just that, anxiety about the fallout shot through Chicago’s healthcare community.

Leaders in Chicago’s entrepreneurial world didn’t stand by idly. 

“We aren’t willing to sit back and watch as this virus puts an enormous health and economic strain on our city and region,” Haven Allen, co-founder and CEO of mHUB, an innovation center for physical product development and manufacturing, says. “We, quite simply, are designed to support entrepreneurs in making things—and making them stronger, better, and faster.” 

Chicago’s entrepreneurial start-up community did as it has been known for decades to do: band together, knuckle down, develop innovative solutions. In one such partnership, leaders from mHUB, MATTER (a local healthcare incubator) and 1871 (an entrepreneurial co-working and collaboration space), joined forces to create the Chicago Proactive Response–COVID-19 initiative, which address the most pressing healthcare industry needs by coordinating between their member organizations and the medical professionals on the frontline of the crisis. 

“Emerging from this crisis is going to take real leadership and community,” Allen said. “Illinois and Chicago are demonstrating that it has the foresight and resolve to tackle the immediate concerns and needs, and plan for the necessary support of the long-term effects on our economy and society.”

When the initiative first launched, the coalition confronted a deluge of grim numbers. In a matter of weeks, the tide has started to change. 

A Scrappy, Guerrilla Operation 

The biggest needs right now are primarily for stop-gap solutions to PPE shortages like face shields, masks, and respirators. Two Chicago-based startups, HANK Industries and Square One Product Development, have shifted their production to help supply area medical professionals with the tools they need to fight against COVID-19 on the front lines. 

“The operation is guerrilla and scrappy,” Henry Africano, founder of HANK, said. “We work very fast to identify viable, actionable designs and ideas that solve the challenges put forth by the frontline workers fighting this virus each day.” 

The biggest barrier they’re running into is that the situation around PPE shortages is a supply chain problem inside of a supply chain problem. Given the shortage of the equipment, manufacturing companies are ramping up their production. Consequently, the materials necessary for making new equipment are in short supply. From the filter paper that makes N-95 masks effective to the plastic for face masks, some vital materials simply cannot be found. Even as Mitch Muller, the Founder of Square One Product Development, devises innovations to get around supply shortages—like his design for an intubation shield—he struggles to identify stocks of necessary materials anywhere. 

“There’s a very interesting balance that comes from the fact that so many industries are becoming singularly focused on producing PPE and other safety products,” Muller noted. “It becomes a zero-sum game where you need to be very careful you’re not starving other production operations.” 

As a workaround, Muller and his team have worked with mHUB’s micro-manufacturing spaces to use alternative materials that are still as effective but that don’t strain already depleted supply chains. And the solutions have been, at the least, creative. For instance, Africano and his team planned to use snorkel masks fitted with a 3D-printed filter adapter to create an effective respirator. But just as they were about to purchase 15,000 snorkel masks, somebody else came along and snapped up the supply. 

“It’s a bit like flying blind,” Africano said. “When we and others identify good alternatives, the demand for those materials quickly outruns supply.” 

To meet the demands of healthcare professionals in the Chicagoland area and beyond, many of the groups working in mHUB’s spaces are working 80 or more hours a week. They’re cycling quickly and intentionally through brainstorms, using constantly updated medical feedback from frontline responders and medical experts about what is needed where. The pace has been incredible, and, like most things during this pandemic—unprecedented. For the entrepreneurs leading the charge on meeting the demand, though, the chance to contribute positively to the fight against COVID-19 fills them with more determination. 

“The excitement in ICUs and ERs when we deliver products produced at mHUB is incredibly energizing,” Muller said. “Anything that we can do to protect and serve our healthcare professionals on the front lines is justification to keep on going.”