In addition to the emergency industrial mobilization to make vital medical equipment like complex ventilators, countless Winnipeg entrepreneurs are marshalling their resources to contribute in whatever way they can to the effort to contain and help end the novel coronavirus outbreak.
University student Alex Kroft who’s using his long-standing interest in 3D printing to help make face shields; and Dr. Gerald Minuk, a professor of medicine, whose brand-new company, Refuah Solutions, was formed to market a mobile app to help clinical trials to recruit patients. It’s now being given away to COVID-19-related clinical trials being launched around the world; and serial entrepreneur Matt Olson, whose instincts five weeks ago were more accurate than many public health officials regarding how serious a crisis the virus posed.
Olson, who is the entrepreneur-in-residence at North Forge Technology Exchange, went online and ordered a number of pieces of equipment from South Korea called ultra low volume fogging machines that could be used to disinfect large spaces.
"The way I saw it, I could either sit on the sidelines or get in the game," he said.
Like so many other manufactured goods that are being consumed at unprecedented rates in the fight against the pandemic, the supply of these machines has now dried up almost completely.
"The price and availability of these things has changed dramatically," said Olson, who said the South Korean manufacturer now has a 14-to-16 week wait for these machines. "It’s very low on availability and very high on the prices."
In fact, Olson wasn’t even sure he would receive any as he was being told that all orders were being diverted to New York. But he did receive 10 of the machines (at a cost of about $1,200 each including the cost of overnight air freight) on Friday night.
He is talking with parties in northern Manitoba to send a few up north to be used in case of virus outbreaks in remote communities.
He has set up a company called Winnipeg Disinfection Services and will figure out a way to roll out a service to provide mass disinfection.
On Monday morning he was expecting a shipment of 20,000 litres of disinfecting fluid.
The equipment can disinfect large areas a lot quicker than it might take individuals to wipe down spaces like health care facilities or playgrounds or gyms.
"The ability to get into every nook and cranny with a rag and some disinfectant is not practical at the scale that is going to be needed in four to eight-weeks time when we are trying to resume some semblance of normalness," he said.
Olson is not looking to make a big payday, he’s just trying to figure out the number "to make sure we don’t find ourselves deep in the red."
Dr. Minuk, a professor of medicine at the University of Manitoba who holds the Morberg Family Chair in Hepatology, is also not looking to make any money off his clinical trial recruiting app.
In fact, his only problem right now is getting his professional colleagues to agree to allow him to give it away for free.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Minuk and his colleague, Daniel Iluz-Freundlich, a University of Winnipeg computer science grad who is currently in medical school in Israel, had negotiated test sites with a couple of pharmaceutical companies in the U.S. and Asia.
But now all the efforts are to get it in front of COVID-19-related clinical trials.
"We’re working nights and weekends trying to get our app to those responsible for those trials," Minuk said. "A month ago when we first realized the value of our app for COVID-19 related studies there were 15 such studies listed with Clinicaltrials.gov. As of last week there were more than 300 such trials."
The mobile app provides access to a trial’s inclusion and exclusion criteria, selected study information and a communication network that co-ordinates patient enrolment and other study-related activities.
Modification to the program now enables labs to directly notify study teams of positive COVID-19 results and study investigators to compare different COVID-19 trials underway at their site to ensure the right patients are enrolled in the right trials.
When the call to return home to shelter in place came, Alex Kroft, 19, suspected it might be longer than just a couple of weeks. The second-year engineering student at Duke University took as much of his study material with him and headed home to Winnipeg.
As a long-time 3D printer enthusiast, a few years ago he and his partner Niels Hurst had created a company called Aerial 360 doing drone photography and 3D models of homes and cottages.
He signed in to a number of 3D online communities and a call went out from a University of Toronto group that Kroft responded to for emergency quantities of plastic face shields for medical professionals. They accessed a design and fired up a couple of desktop 3D machines and plan to ship 500 by the end of the week.
In the meantime, they ordered a couple more machines and posted a GoFundMe page on Monday to cover the costs of new machines. In a couple of hours they’d raised $4,000.
"This is a great way to spend my time," he said. "Rather than be bored this allows me to be involved in helping out."
Kroft, whose family owns Conviron, the specialty growing chamber manufacturing company, said the idea is to dedicate some production for Manitoba and to donate the 3D printers when the COVID-19 demand subsides.
Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.
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Updated on Monday, April 6, 2020 at 9:33 PM CDT: Fixes typos