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COVID-19 is teaching us just what innovation is possible

Ethan Karp
By Ethan Karp President and CEO, MAGNET: Manufacturing Advocacy and Growth Network

FIELD INTELLIGENCE: Smart Processes, Solutions & Strategies

What a difference a month makes. In a survey by the Manufacturing Advocacy and Growth Network (MAGNET) in February, only 24 percent of Ohio manufacturers said innovation was a priority. A month later, they were pivoting their production lines and innovating to make lifesaving protection equipment.

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MAGNET’s Nick McClellen demonstrates the face shields he helped Ohio manufacturers create for healthcare workers.

Overnight, COVID-19 changed our world and our priorities.

When Ohio Governor Mike DeWine put out a call to join the Ohio Manufacturing Alliance to Fight COVID-19, more than 2,000 manufacturers signed up in two days. While much of the country locked down, manufacturers got to work making the protection equipment front-line workers needed to fight the pandemic and stay safe.

Companies pivoted from toys to face shields, from whiskey to hand sanitizer, from mattresses to medical gowns. The Alliance designed a new, reusable plastic face shield and we went from idea to prototype to building a new local supply chain and production in less than two weeks. In a month, we produced one million face shields. We helped facilitate production of one million specialty swabs to allow for expanded COVID-19 testing in Ohio. We’re making cotton masks, gowns, gloves and hospital protective barriers that can conserve precious supplies of medical protective gear.

And now we’re connecting the dots.

The Ohio Emergency PPE Maker’s Exchange launched in April to connect manufacturers producing protective gear to low-volume buyers that could otherwise be shut out. These are police departments, paramedics, nursing homes and essential employees that badly need these protections.

How did we go from an industry reluctant to innovate to one saving lives with it?

Despite our success here, the barriers to innovation remain significant. New technologies or products can be seen as an expensive, risk-taking proposition instead of an opportunity to improve productivity, move up the value chain and power growth. In the pandemic, what made the difference in overcoming these hurdles were powerful statewide partnerships that formed an unbeatable innovation ecosystem. One that offers valuable lessons for the future of innovation.

One, we need a strong local network of experts who can take what big companies know, share it and apply it affordably in small company settings. We did this with the face shields. Instead of waiting six to 12 weeks for an injection mold from China, our team of experts across 25 companies pooled their expertise. And they made a mold locally with the help of cutting-edge 3D metal printing—even inventing some new techniques along the way while leveraging expertise from think[Box] at Case Western Reserve University.

Two, for startups, innovation is about finding the most inexpensive, fastest way to a clear value proposition using lean startup methodologies and a fanatical adherence to minimal viable products and rapid testing of critical assumptions. We saw this iterating through lightning-fast rounds of feedback from several hospital systems as we produced multiple prototypes of our face shield. We need ecosystems with experienced entrepreneurs and accelerators to aid in this process.

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Hospital protective barriers designed and manufactured with the help of MAGNET lower the demand for other personal protective equipment.

Three, large anchor manufacturers must play an outsized role. When the supply chain for the plastic necessary for face shields began to dry up, Eaton was able to use its contacts to secure the deal. Large companies that can make investments, such as university-powered research and development, are critical for advancing manufacturing and maintaining a competitive, technological edge for the entire sector.

Four, innovative financial vehicles can be used to invest in meaningful research among smaller companies. During this crisis, emergency funding flowed from state agencies and associated organizations like JobsOhio. By forming community-focused venture capital funds or shared risk funds now, we can de-risk these vital innovation investments. States, local philanthropies, and civic-minded individuals can all look at how their portfolios might support the strengthening of their local manufacturing communities, as well as provide return.

Lastly, the most important piece is bold leadership. COVID-19 brought together large manufacturers, universities, state, and local governments. For example, along with manufacturers, the Ohio Manufacturers’ Association, Ohio MEP, Ohio Development Services Agency, FastLane at University of Dayton Research Institute, and Team NEO were joined at the hip to run the Ohio Manufacturing Alliance to Fight COVID-19. Powerful partnerships like this are critical for inspiring innovation through peer learning, knowledge exchange, and connecting the dots on funding.

In a defining moment for our nation, innovation became one of our most effective weapons against COVID-19. And as we rebuild, we’re going to need more of it.

Let’s not forget what we learned. We can absolutely make innovation a priority. We can repatriate and rebuild local supply chains. We can work together to make things that haven’t been made here in decades.

And we can build the ecosystems required to sustain and supercharge manufacturing innovation in our post-pandemic world.

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