Two Triangle Startups Scale A New Product: Medical Face Shields

Health Care workers wearing face shields made by the Klarrio face shield project.

Klarrio CEO Jim Smith never thought his passion for 3-D printing would somehow intersect with his position at an international SaaS company. But when he saw news of people 3-D printing face shields in Europe to help health care workers combat Covid-19, he wondered if he could help too. 

After looking at a couple of face shield templates, Smith asked Dr. Michael Utecht, an ER physician at the Durham VA Medical Center, if his facility needed any. 

Utecht’s answer: “Make as many as you can.”

As doctors and nurses across the country experience shortages in personal protective equipment (PPE) due to the Covid-19 outbreak, startups in the Triangle have joined together and with the community to produce vital face shields.

Apex-based systems integration company Klarrio and Durham-based energy management firm Plotwatt are leading two separate efforts to manufacture and provide hospitals with face shields, devices used by doctors, nurses and other medical workers to protect themselves from harmful germs when dealing with patients.

“These are probably not going to be used on the front line,” Smith said. “What this will be used for is maybe in a screening test, when they don’t know if people have the virus, and it frees up some of the really difficult-to-get material, like N95 masks.”

Two weeks ago, Smith began making face shields according to guidelines given to him by Utecht and the Durham VA. The face shields he makes are comprised of a 3-D printed headpiece with a shield made out of binder covers. plus a rubber band to connect them.

The shields produced by Klarrio’s project are made to be disposable. When health care workers get the shields, they are deconstructed in a plastic bag accompanied by a sheet of paper with a QR code, which they scan to go to a website with full assembly instructions.

The face shield made by Klarrio.

Smith reached out to NC RioT, an organization Klarrio is a partner of, to see if they could help since they also had some 3-D printers. One of the companies using one of those printers was Raleigh-based Aeva Labs, which provides rapid aging techniques to liquor distilleries and was co-founded by Zachary Fearnside and Steven Guido. (We have another story today on Aeva Labs.)

“When Jim came to me, it was pretty early,” Fearnside said, “maybe a few days after he started. And it was just me, him and one other printer. Then I started reaching out in the HQ Raleigh community, as well as RIoT.”

Responses exploded. Now, more than 20 makers from 11 different startups, including Bandwidth, BoatyBall, Phase Dock, EventOPS, Medible, Green Stream, Net Friends and Allstacks have joined Klarrio in making face shields. Instructions on how to make the face shields can be found here.

When the project first started, they were making deliveries of 40 face shields each to the Durham VA and Fayetteville VA, Smith said. Now, they are able to make deliveries of 100. Smith said once the VA has an adequate supply, they will send shields to the North Carolina Medical Society. 

Klarrio has almost exclusively funded most of the face shield project, and Smith said he wants to keep it within the community, but they are open to donations.

Plotwatt Also Joins Fight

Another startup, Durham’s Plotwatt, has also organized its own face shield project: The DIY Face Shield Project. The project, funded by a GoFundMe, is spearheaded by Plotwatt CEO Luke Fishback and Ruby programmer Sandi Metz. 

Fishback said it all started when his neighbor from Durham’s Solterra co-housing community, an ER doctor, messaged the neighborhood saying she was desperately in need of face shields. Immediately, the neighborhood kicked into gear to figure out a solution.

After sifting through a handful of different designs, Fishback and his neighbors settled on a simple model using acrylic facial plexiglass that can be melted in an oven. These models were designed to be made with very little tools, so basically anyone can do them from home, and unlike the shields made by Klarrio, these face shields aim to be reusable.

“Now we’ve got a weird little factory run out of my garage where neighbors can come by,” Fishback said, “and we all make face shields and stay separated from one another. A lot of folks come by and pick up a bin of work that we can sanitize and send home with them.”

The DIY Face Shield Project shields have been shipped across the state, the country and beyond—to hospitals in New York and even to the Mariana Islands. Roughly 20 volunteers from the Solterra neighborhood work on building the shields, and they build close to 1,000 shields a week. Instructions on how to make the face shields can be found here.

“I come from a startup environment,” Fishback said. “It’s what I do. This is a lot different. It’s a lot different than anything I’ve read about on GrepBeat in that our hope is to be obsolete tomorrow. Our aspiration here is that this problem disappears, that global manufacturing catches up or we find something that really changes the trajectory of this. So we want to scale like mad and shut it down immediately, and that’s weird, but it feels right.”

For Fishback and Smith and all of the other makers and community members involved in making these face shields, there is no monetary reward, no pot of gold. But there is the chance to give back to the community, to do something and feel less powerless.

“We always want to participate more than just attend,” Smith said. “We want to help the accelerator groups move forward. We want to helps the startup companies as best we can, with our expertise and our knowledge. We looked at this as very similar. It’s a financial commitment, it’s a commitment of time, and it makes sense at this time that we give back to the community that we’re in.”

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About Elizabeth Thompson 28 Articles
Elizabeth Thompson is a reporter covering business and tech in the Triangle. She can be reached at elizabeth@grepbeat.com or follow her on twitter @by_ethompson.