How InkSmith Retooled for the War Against COVID-19
AFTER PIVOT FROM ED-TECH TO FACE SHIELDS, KITCHENER FIRM IS RAPIDLY SCALING, AND HIRING, TO MEET DEMAND
Jeremy Hedges, CEO and founder of InkSmith, confesses with a little laugh that he no longer knows the names of all his employees. He’ll catch up eventually, he promises. The thinking is, his employees will forgive him.
Hedges’ company roster has, in a matter of 16 days, ballooned from 10 to “75 to 80” at last count, and many, many more employees are on the way in the coming days.
“I just called three staffing firms,” says Hedges. “We’ll probably hire another 150 to 200 people in the next three weeks.”
That kind of jaw-dropping growth is what unfolds when you decide, in the midst of a global pandemic, to pivot your company, overnight, from one that was building robotic kits for schools to one that churns out face shields – tens of thousands of them, now – for hospitals and front-line caregivers.
“We were an education technology company,” says Hedges, one that taught kids design thinking, how to define an idea, solve it with the tools at hand, and then “go after it.”
“So, you know, what we preach and what we teach in a classroom is what we were able to do with what we had to help our community.”
InkSmith’s reinvention began after a visit from a local doctor, Neil Naik, the physician advisor at the eHealth Centre of Excellence in Waterloo. Naik laid out for the InkSmith staff the scope of the problem facing doctors and front-line workers, asking if they might be able to lend a tech-based hand to solving urgent medical problems.
“Neil painted the picture of just how serious it was,” says Hedges. “It was 11 a.m., on Friday. We immediately started ripping 3D printers out of boxes, uncrating lasers, and started producing as many shields as we could with the stuff we had on hand. Like, we called a few shops and picked up [some] sheets of plastic and just kind of went at it. There was no real plan. It was just like, ‘Hey, we have the tools on hand to help. So we’re gonna do that.’”
Hedges says his team’s first thought was that they’d end up donating three or four thousand shields.
“But it’s obviously turned into something much bigger, because the problem is massive.”
Here’s how much bigger: Hedges says the company, at last count, has produced “roughly 50,000 to 70,000” face shields. It will soon be able to produce 30,000 to 40,000 units per day at its office at 44 Gaukel St. in downtown Kitchener, and has just signed a lease on a new location where “we’ll be probably doing around 100,000 to 150,000 a day.”
The team is now producing two products. One is a Health Canada-certified face shield made on a laser cutter, appropriately called The Canadian Shield, that is for hospitals. The other is a 3D printer-produced product called The Community Shield.
And his company has become something of a poster child for the way area companies – others include Guelph’s Danby and Kitchener’s Trusscore and ExVivo, to name a few – have stepped up to help the medical community.
None of it, Hedges says, would have happened without the community chipping in. Communitech and the City of Kitchener helped with government relations, getting Health Canada certification, and accessing government grants. And when the company realized it didn’t have enough 3D printers to make the portion of the shield that sits on the user’s head, a community call went out, and 3D printers were fired up at places like the Kitchener Public Library. Ten thousand units were promptly delivered.
And, of course, there was the contribution of his own team members, many of whom have been working 16-hour days.
“I can’t say enough about this community,” says Hedges.
So, what happens to InkSmith down the road? Does it continue producing face shields indefinitely, or does it eventually go back to its former life as an ed-tech firm? Hedges says they’ll play it by ear; he’d like to eventually return to the education space, but for the moment, particularly with schools no longer in session and with the demand for medical gear still growing, it makes sense to lean in on face shield production.
“Because, you know, things are pretty serious right now, and we’re going to do whatever we can to help.”