Ann Arbor-area manufacturers and startups pivot to fill medical needs during pandemic

Many businesses have suffered a major blow since COVID-19 struck Washtenaw County. But a handful have found new purpose by refocusing their operations to fill high demand in the medical sector.


Dr. Margarita Hernandez, director of entrepreneurial services for Ann Arbor SPARK, says at least four manufacturers in the Ann Arbor area have begun making ventilators, personal protective equipment (PPE), and other medical supplies in recent weeks. New Eagle, Adaptive Energy, and Leon Speakers are among the local manufacturers who have prioritized producing PPE.


"They're like, 'We don't have anything else to do and we don't want to let go of our people, so how can we be helpful?'" Hernandez says.


Around 20 local startups have also stepped up to fill medical needs, including about five who have specifically reoriented their business to produce ventilators. One such startup is AIM Tech, which had been developing a low-cost ventilator for use on infants. The company quickly pivoted to retrofit its technology for adult use and is now preparing for mass production. Other startups are introducing sterilization and therapeutic products.


"It's literally been waves and waves of different startups trying to see whether or not their technology could be something that could be very helpful," Hernandez says.


In many cases, startups have made use of emergency use authorizations (EUAs), an FDA process that allows for accelerated approval of technologies that assist in emergency response. Hernandez says SPARK and its fellow SmartZones elsewhere in the state have been collaborating to help companies navigate that process, connect to manufacturers, and get products to market.


"Getting all of that organized has been a really big hurdle, but it's working," she says.


It's working so well, in fact, that Hernandez is already starting to anticipate what will happen when the medical need "levels out" and some companies pivot to address the needs of the general public. For instance, she notes, there's still a shortage of sanitization products. And the future will bring new needs that we haven't even conceived of yet.


"[COVID-19] has completely scarred us in a very different way and we really need to think about how we interact with our world, how we clean our houses, how we clean our hands," Hernandez says. "... We have all these startups and manufacturers at our fingertips. We need to start thinking about what life looks like and how we can support citizens, people, everybody with something better, given what's happened."


For more Concentrate coverage of our community's response to the COVID-19 crisis, click here.


Patrick Dunn is the managing editor of Concentrate.


Photo courtesy of Ann Arbor SPARK.