Michael Elliott calls it a “Silicon Valley 1.0 story.”
It’s the perfect way to describe how the maker community in the Bay Area coalesced on a project to build face shields that will go to health care workers serving on the front lines during the coronavirus pandemic.
Elliott, who is the COO of the Valley Medical Center Foundation, sent out a tweet in mid-March after speaking with a nurse at the hospital’s command center, realizing a shortage of face shields was imminent.
A picture of a man wearing a face shield accompanied his post: “We build satellites and electric cars and linear accelerators in this valley. Certainly we can build these. Got ideas? With materials you can access? We need them now. In the thousands. We’re not joking.”
The statement got re-tweeted 200 times that day, and Maker Nexus—a 3D printing company in Sunnyvale with four paid employees—responded immediately.
“We got a bunch of responses, which was heartening,” Elliott said. “Nexus was the fastest to say, ‘Yeah, we can develop a prototype.’ They got us something in 48 hours. We asked them to make changes, and they did that. The first batch of 500 face shields was sent out [Tuesday to the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center].”
At a time when healthcare workers across the nation are getting increasingly frustrated that they’re fighting a battle without the protective gear they need for themselves and their patients, the demand for face shields, masks, ventilators and other personal protective equipment (known as PPEs) needed to care for COVID-19 patients and the workers treating them has never been greater.
Jim Schrempp, who is on the Maker Nexus Board of Directors, said the nonprofit organization is now shipping out 600 to 700 face shields a day to health care facilities across the nation, with the goal to eventually make 1,000 per day. Face shields are particularly valuable because medical staff wears them to protect against respiratory droplets that can transmit the coronavirus.
“I think this is humanitarian aid,” said Schrempp, who is the former vice president of Audible Magic, a company he co-founded. “It’s hard to believe we’re doing humanitarian aid in the US, but this is a disaster.”
Even by Silicon Valley standards, Maker Nexus’ latest project came together in a flash.
“From March 18 to today, to get something that will be deployed for use is a remarkable thing,” Elliott said. “It also speaks to the depth of the crisis because in normal times, this would never happen in a million years.”
Schrempp, who also worked for 19 years at Hewlett Packard overseeing a team of 50 engineers and is a named inventor on over 20 patents, isn’t surprised how quickly this came together. Even though Maker Nexus has only four paid employees, the organization has 200 members in its community who maintain contact through the latest online team technology, utilizing discussion forums on Slack and Facebook to keep the ideas flowing and the community of makers cohesive.
Maker Nexus enlisted the help of electrical and mechanical engineers along with 3D printing enthusiasts, and once word got out they were building face shields, the Maker Nexus community group swelled in numbers.
“All of a sudden now we have almost 300 members of the community who are using their own 3D printers to print pieces of face shields,” Schrempp said. “We’re now a 300-person manufacturing facility, and everyone is doing it in their homes. It’s really fascinating.”
Maker Nexus gives its face shields away for free, though Schrempp said they will accept donations from anybody because “we can use the money and we’ll keep doing this until the money runs out and we’re done.”
Elliott sees a silver lining in the coronavirus pandemic.
“If there is any positive to be found, I think it’s the sense of solidarity in the valley that we’re all in this together, and this crisis is showing that,” he said. “Nexus spent their own resources and money on this. The material wasn’t free, but that was never their concern. Their attitude was, ‘What can we do to help?’”
Elliott marveled at Maker Nexus’ organization in reaching out beyond the community and forming a coalition to mass-produce a product in high demand.
“I give Maker Nexus total credit,” Elliott said. “They’re volunteers, they have families to worry about and they don’t have to help us. But it speaks to the communities’ awareness of the risk of the disease and the health care workforce putting their lives on the line. The idea that we could run out of this [PPEs] was unacceptable.”
Elliott had never heard of Maker Nexus until the organization responded to his tweet.
Two days later, a face shield landed in the hands of physicians, nurses and infection control staff at the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center (SCVMC) and its auxiliary fundraising foundation. They reviewed the shield and gave feedback to Maker Nexus, which made all the necessary adjustments.
“Over a span of three to four days, we went through seven to eight different designs and finally got one the doctors and nurses said that would work,” Schrempp said.
Elliott said Maker Nexus used the ingenuity of its members to improve on a prototype shield that was already widely available and used in a lot of different settings around the world. However, Maker Nexus changed the design to fit what medical workers needed.
“They solved the hard part, and really all we had to worry about was the material for the head strap and the shape of the shield itself,” Elliott said. “They worked with us to get it in a way it would be usable.”
As an added bonus, these face shields are reusable, which gives health care workers a lot of flexibility to clean them and use them again.
Elliott and Schrempp said the experience reminded them of an earlier time in Silicon Valley. “Back in the day, when people were building their own motherboards, back when people were building stuff with parts in their garages, to me that’s what this felt like,” Elliott said. “It’s a sense of people rising to the challenge.”
Said Schrempp: “I had my own startup, and this felt just like that. You have an idea of what you have to make, and as it gets better you put in processes to bring order. Once we started making the face shield, the demand just exploded.”
Even though SCVMC wasn’t out of of face shields, Elliott knew a shortage could be in short order (no pun intended).
“It doesn’t take a lot to foresee there could be a problem here, knowing there was a huge wave coming,” he said. “So we had to do everything to be prepared for that.”
Innovation is a fabric of Silicon Valley, and Schrempp knows that more than anyone. The greatest joy he receives in tackling a project is when it literally becomes a potential life-saver, as in the case with face shields.
“I was on the phone with a woman who called from Marin saying they didn’t have any face shields,” Schrempp said. “She asked how much it cost. I said, ‘Well, it cost us $5 (to make), but we’re giving them away free.’ She started crying, and it’s then you realize this is a big deal. It’s unbelievable.”