If all goes to plan, an empty warehouse in St. John’s will soon be home to a 3D printing farm producing thousands of face shields that will help protect frontline healthcare workers from contracting COVID-19.
“It’s been quite inspiring to see a whole community of people come together,” says Travis Pickett, Chief Operations Officer with St. John’s-based medical 3D printing startup PolyUnity.
Pickett is a fourth-year medical student at Memorial University. His two co-founders Michael Bartellas and Stephen Ryan, are both working doctors—Bartellas in Ottawa, as an ENT resident, and Ryan as a family medicine resident in St. John’s.
A lot has happened in a very short time to get to this point, Pickett says. At the end of February, PolyUnity signed on as an innovation partner with Eastern Health, one of four regional health authorities in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Then COVID-19 became a global pandemic. The virus is spread primarily through contact with infected people when they cough or sneeze, as well as when someone touches a surface contaminated with the virus and then touches their eyes, nose or mouth.
Suddenly Eastern Health was on the phone to PolyUnity, asking them what they could do to produce protective equipment for healthcare workers so they wouldn’t get sick when treating COVID-19 patients.
So Pickett and his team got to work. They’re now days away from having their face shield design approved as a Class 1 medical device and weeks away from having thousands of the shields made and ready for use, he says.
The warehouse they’re using belongs to Eastern Health and is in the industrial park in St. John’s. They have access to it through their partnership with Eastern Health, via the health authority’s Living Labs program which places entrepreneurs directly within its facilities to work with medical professionals on new products and solutions.
The clear face covering is sourced from another manufacturer and the plastic band that goes around the head is printed on site, Pickett says.
Though they’re not in use in hospitals right now, PolyUnity is producing as many shields as they can in anticipation of the devices clearing the approval process.
They’re also working with Memorial University, Eastern Health, Brilliant Labs and a host of others to find and secure more 3D printers to set up in the warehouse to make more.
“We’re bulking up on them now just so we have a stock ready to go,” he says. “This is going to be something that’s going to be going on for weeks and months.”
You may have also seen tweets calling for anyone with large quantities of face masks or other protective equipment to contact PolyUnity. Pickett says that’s part of a larger, community-wide effort to secure as much equipment for healthcare workers as possible.
“We’re just playing a very small role in that,” he says.
Clarification: This article has been updated to say that the clear plastic face covering is sourced from a manufacturer while the cream-coloured plastic band that wraps around the head is 3D printed by PolyUnity.