By George Whitesides, CEO Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Company
During this difficult time, Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Company have been doing a lot to support our people, and the communities in which we work and live. Our CEO George Whitesides spoke with one of our Sr. Directors at The Spaceship Company, Santiago Barrerra, to hear about the work he and his wife are doing to support their native home of Colombia and how their work is positively impacting South America.
Their creative thinking has meant that they reinvented themselves in a way that is now helping save lives through the work they are doing to support medics with PPE supplies, and they have generated new jobs in doing so.
How was your company in Colombia impacted by the pandemic?
My wife and I are majority owners of a Colombian company called Mebi Metrologia Biomedica S.A. It is an accredited metrology laboratory that provides services to the health industry in the region and employs around 30 people. We have been in business for around 12 years – and have over 600 customers, including hospitals, clinics and laboratories, with presence in every major Colombian city.
When Covid-19 hit, we knew that our company was going to be vulnerable. Firstly, most of our customers closed their doors to non-medical personnel – our work is predominantly performed on-site, so this was going to be a significant issue. Secondly, internal flights and travel within the country suddenly became very difficult or impossible, so our teams were, in any case, unable to travel to those sites. We came to the conclusion that we probably wouldn’t be able to survive this without acting quickly.
The question was: how do we reinvent our company, in order to not only survive through this, but to help our communities at a time of great need?
How did you shift the focus of your company?
We knew that we wanted to ensure the safety of our staff, our families, and wider society; whilst also finding a way to support the Colombian health sector, which is currently under greater strain than ever before. Therefore, it was vital we were able to determine what our main goals were and how we were going to achieve them
Our culture – driven by what we’ve learnt from Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Company – set us up to adapt to this change in approach; from the importance of strategic clarity, to setting goals, to placing purpose at the heart of everything we do. Without this knowledge, we wouldn’t have been able to shift, scale and mobilize as well as we have.
We then focused on the two areas we determined would benefit us and our communities most:
- We wanted to help people
- We wanted to help the health sector
With these goals in mind, and by utilising our existing network of connections in the Colombian health sector, we got to work.
What are the projects you pursued to deliver on these goals?
We pursued several projects that made use of the resources at our disposal, across sales, distribution, manufacturing, and industrial design.
Sale and distribution of masks
Face masks are, of course, one of the most basic pieces of equipment available for medical personnel to protect themselves. We knew that stocks would quickly run low, as they have across the world, so we started reviewing local needs and proposed a solution. We reached out to two local clothing manufacturers – Maneky Distribuciones and Agucor – to see if they could adjust their operations to produce them.
The following day, we tested their prototypes to ensure they met medical standards, and had an order for 1.7 million masks filled by the following morning – with an option to order 10 million more. With this supply, we’ve been able to create a new ‘shop’ – dedicated to mask supply – which has created over 100 new jobs, and we’re working with five other suppliers in the region.
Partnership with Multiplo to manufacture masks
We also realized that we had resources which would help us design and build mask production machines ourselves, with the help of partners. We joined forces with Multiplo, a company with many years of experience in the designing and manufacturing electric vehicles.
We set to work, Multiplo focusing on the manufacturing and design, and Mebi Metrologia taking charge of the administration, marketing and distribution channels.
Within one week, we had designed a machine and were closing an order for 50 million face mask units – an order that’s going to require a plant and 3 new machines! We’ve sourced all parts locally, and expect to have the warehouse and the machines built in around 2 weeks, ready to start production in mid-May. We expect this project alone to sustain around 30 jobs.
Partnerships to develop, test, build and distribute ventilators
Since we began our work supporting the local healthcare community, we have entered into partnerships with several companies to build, test and sell medical ventilators, critical equipment for intensive care wards across the world, which are in staggeringly short supply.
We have offered our services to multiple manufacturers who are developing open sourced or proprietary ventilator designs to bring to market. These new models require testing, validation and certification – a service that Mebi Metrologia specializes in and can quickly pivot its resources towards.
- For Iron Heat, a company developing an open sourced model, we have conducted initial testing and are in the process of helping import components to construct 20 new units.
- For OVO, a local Colombian manufacturer, we have helped conduct first stage testing and are almost ready to certify. This project is particularly unique, since it has allowed the re-purposing of automotive parts for the design – reducing the need to depend on the supply of medical components.
- Industrias Sampedro, a company that is involved in a large, collaborative initiative called InnspiraMED, also reached out to us for support in testing and certification of its ventilator design, and we have been able to provide them with rapid testing resources. This week, the company successfully conducted preclinical trials in operating rooms of the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine and Zootechnics of CES University in Medellín.
Last week, I had a remote birthday celebration for a friend who lives in Ecuador. Hearing some of his stories, and seeing some of the things that are happening in our neighbouring nation, I ended the conversation concerned and feeling that we’re still not doing enough.
That’s why this is just the beginning for us – we’re already talking to other customers and suppliers that we have relationships with, and are exploring the possibility of distributing FDA-approved oxygen hoods that The Spaceship Company has developed across South America – another innovative and much-needed piece of equipment.
Mebi Metrologia will continue taking every step within its means to help our employees, friends, family and communities through this crisis, whilst continuing to lend our support to healthcare workers across South America. They are the real heroes.