Entrepreneurs Help Battle Coronavirus

By Jon Chavez The Blade, Toledo, Ohio

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) As Jon Chavez reports, the virus has pushed some entrepreneurs "to develop new products or modify existing ones to battle the coronavirus, giving them unexpected opportunities to enhance their revenues."

Toledo

If necessity is truly the mother of invention, then the coronavirus pandemic may end up being the matriarch of a very big family.

There is no doubt that the virus threat has devastated certain businesses, with the service industry-related companies, in particular, being the hardest hit.

But the virus has pushed others to develop new products or modify existing ones to battle the coronavirus, giving them unexpected opportunities to enhance their revenues.

The list includes a local robotics systems engineering firm that has produced a device to quickly sterilize personal protective equipment and an electrical & technology firm that has adapted thermal scanners so that more than a dozen people can be checked simultaneously for elevated body temperatures.

One instance of virus-inspired innovation occurred in early April when Ottawa Rubber, a 75-year-old auto parts supplier with just 15 employees, ramped up its injection molding equipment to begin making silicone straps for face shields to protect health care workers. It collaborated on the face shield project with more than a dozen other companies and was making up to 33,000 straps daily.

"People think that entrepreneurship is about money and it's not. Money is sometimes the result of an entrepreneurial activity, but entrepreneurship is really just innovation meeting a problem that needs a solution," said Norm Rapino, executive director of Rocket Innovations at the University of Toledo. "Some entrepreneurs never produce a dime, but what they do is important," Mr. Rapino said.

According to a recent study by GoDaddy.com, an internet domain registrar and web hosting site, the country already had been seeing a surge in new online ventures and the coronavirus has fueled that surge.

According to GoDaddy's Venture Forward study conducted jointly with the University of Iowa and Arizona State University, Toledo ranks 323 out of 933 city regions and averages just over 3 new online ventures per 100 people. The study claims that the new venture rate of 3 per 100 adds $1,630 to Toledo's annual median household income. It also makes the city slightly more prosperous and better able to recover from recession.

Mr. Rapino said it's been clear to him that the virus has been spurring innovation by many people using their various talents or resources to find ways to counter problems generated by the pandemic.

"I think we're going to be surprised with the novel solutions that some people come up with that are very disruptive and based on the application of good old American ingenuity," Mr. Rapino said.

Nick Orzechowski, president and owner of Innovative Handling, a small robotics systems company in Sylvania, is among those who last month used his ingenuity and engineering expertise to produce a faster way to sterilize items.

"I kept telling my wife that I wished there was something we could do to help the community. Then I saw two doctors at (Mercy Health St. Vincent Medical Center) had come up with a box that uses UV-C lights to disinfect [N95] masks," Mr. Orzechowski said.

"I met with them and we said, 'Well, that's something we could make here. We took their idea and we improved upon it," Mr. Orzechowski said.

The doctors' device, called a Covinator, took five minutes to sterilize masks and other gear to be reused. The light disrupts the DNA of the coronavirus, making it inert.

But, "They had a version they were using but you could tell it was a homemade," Mr. Orzechowski said. "We used our engineering background to come up with something that was designed."

Innovative Handling designed and produced four large prototypes that use just 2 UV-C bulbs and a system of reflective surfaces that can sterilize three masks, or a laptop, or an iPad in just 30 seconds. The design is such that a larger box easily could be made to hold more equipment, Mr. Orzechowski said.

The team used data from the University of Toledo to determine the proper wavelength of the bulbs to ensure that the coronavirus would be rendered inactive.

On Thursday, the company met with officials from the Food and Drug Administration as part of a process to get the FDA's approval for the Covinator, which is expected to sell for about $2,000.

The four prototypes were donated to the Cherry Street Mission, Mercy Health St. Vincent, the Lucas County jail, and the Sylvania Township Fire Department. But this week Innovative Handling plans to make 10 more Covinators, which are based on proven scientific practices pioneered by the University of Nebraska Medical Center's Infectious Diseases division.

"We're trying to ramp it up. We could make 100 a month if we had to. It's really not our core business, but they're easy enough to make," Mr. Orzechowski said. "Our intent is to market these nationwide.

"We're envisioning doctors offices, hospitals, fire and rescue, dentist offices -- people that use (personal protective equipment) items on a regular basis -- would be interested. Instead of throwing some things away, you just repurpose them," he said.

"When we talked to the Sylvania Township Fire Department they said it was a great feeling that at the end of the day they can go home with peace of mind and know I'm not taking (the coronavirus) home with me. You could even put your shoes in the box," Mr. Orzechowski said.

Meanwhile, officials at Laibe Electric Co. in Toledo, which sells and installs electrical technology systems, cabling, card readers, security cameras, fire alarms, and other electronic systems, saw a need for businesses and other places that have large groups of people to be able to quickly determine if anyone has an elevated temperature.

One of the symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, is a fever and a temperature above 100.4 degrees.

Laibe was carrying and selling thermal imaging scanners, which previously was used to monitor children going into daycare. In Toledo, "they were primarily being used to watch mechanical equipment in electrical generation rooms to make sure systems don't overheat," said Joe Perkins, vice president of technology for Laibe.

The company took the scanners it has and quickly adapted them to work with facial recognition software and become more streamlined for use in dozens of settings as the Ohio economy slowly reopens.

"It puts a picture on a screen as people are walking by its pathway. Every person gets a box on their head and if they are above the parameters you set the box is red. A green means they're within the threshold," Mr. Perkins said. "We set the threshold at 100.4 degrees, which is the CDC-recommended temperature at which there should be additional screening."

Mr. Perkins said that since Gov. Mike DeWine announced plans for Ohio businesses to reopen, the demand for the thermal imaging scanners, which can read the temperatures of up to 16 people at a time, has accelerated.

"We're selling them to manufacturing facilities, to health care, a whole host of facilities I can't mention because all our customers prefer to remain anonymous," Mr. Perkins said.

An installed system costs between $18,000 to $20,000, but interest is growing in renting the system. As a result, Laibe has developed some portable thermal imaging scanner systems.

"We've actually built some mobile units. We're going to lease these out to construction contractors doing general projects so they can be checking temperatures as workers report to the site," Mr. Perkins said.

"But the application is virtually unlimited. My vision is that people are going to start installing these everywhere as a precaution," Mr. Perkins added. ___ Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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