Thirty-four days ago InkSmith had 10 employees, a modest Kitchener office and a determination to make a difference as the COVID-19 pandemic tightened its grip worldwide.
The company quickly pivoted from making robotics kits for educators to making face shields to augment the local supply of personal protective equipment for healthcare workers.
Today, Friday, InkSmith’s newly formed affiliate company, The Canadian Shield, is on the receiving end of an order from the federal government for 10 million of its signature reusable face shields, the ones the company began manufacturing just weeks ago as a response to the pandemic.
“It’s pretty crazy, when you think about it,” said Jeremy Hedges, founder and CEO of The Canadian Shield and InkSmith. “All this in 34 days.”
It was just two weeks ago that The Canadian Shield moved into a massive Waterloo Region manufacturing space to accommodate its quickly scaling assembly and fabrication processes. At that point it had about 80 employees.
Today it has reached 150 employees and is aiming for 300 within the next few weeks.
The lightning-fast growth and success the company has experienced has come hard against the backdrop of one of the most extraordinary events in modern history, one that has claimed nearly 200,000 lives worldwide and wreaked economic devastation. In Canada, more than 2,200 people have died and millions have been sidelined from their jobs.
Hedges said he is mindful of those sobering numbers and is all too aware of the way the virus has upended the lives of his friends, family and the community at large. He said he and his employees are working to stay focused on the fact that their product is helping front-line health workers stay safe while battling COVID-19.
“We’re just trying to be honest about how we feel,” said Hedges. “I mean, obviously [an order this big is] exciting. It’s also humbling. It’s like, ‘Holy shit, in 30 days we somehow managed to become one of the largest manufacturers of face shields in North America.’ That’s a pretty cool accomplishment, and it puts us in a position to help a lot of people.
“I think, then, that we can be proud of that without being boastful.”
Hedges said he’s also mindful that the growth of the company means it can provide jobs and employment at a time when they are desperately needed. He added the company is looking for “machine operators, forklift operators and people who can fulfil a variety of roles out on the production floor,” including packaging.
“InkSmith’s Canadian Shield is a perfect example of tech for good and an inspiration to other innovators looking to help Canada respond to COVID-19,” said Iain Klugman, President and CEO at Communitech. “The InkSmith team’s lightning-fast pivot to building face shields to protect our frontline healthcare workers is a true community effort that has captured hearts across the country, and we’ll continue to support them as this story unfolds.”
The Canadian Shield product can be reused when cleaned using chemical sanitation and is a more affordable personal protective equipment option than other disposable shields, the company said. It is also compatible with other PPE including N95 masks, surgical masks and safety goggles.
Hedges, who recently spoke with Communitech News about the events that led the company to decide to retool , said the company landed the federal contract after it successfully fulfilled an earlier provincial contract for 300,000 units.
Once the contract with Public Services and Procurement Canada is fulfilled – it runs until August, 2020 – The Canadian Shield is planning to extend its reach internationally, providing PPE to healthcare providers and essential workers around the world.
“We’re hoping that the future holds a big export opportunity for Kitchener-Waterloo, so we can continue to grow the jobs base and build up the resources we need to make sure that beyond COVID we have a really strong manufacturing core here again,” said Hedges. “That way, the next time we have a pandemic, we’re ready and can provide everything that we need for Canadian physicians.”