- On October 21, 2020
Shout Out 2.0 Goes to ViruDefense, Inc.
By Lisa Derby Oden, MassMEP Project Development Coordinator
In an informative and enlightening conversation, Pieter Muntendam, Founder of ViruDefense, Inc. shares the journey of his start-up company. “I’m a physician by training. I went to medical school but realized that industry was probably the place where I could do the things I enjoy doing. One thing that I’ve tried to do throughout my career is to find problems where I can contribute to the solution. Over the past 35 years, I’ve worked on pharmaceuticals, devices, and drug-device combinations. In the 1980’s I spent a period of time in Africa at a time that AIDS was first noticed, and we saw cases of AIDS before people realized what it was. There was also space where viral diseases were prominent and were serious. I became very conscious of viruses and how they could spread around the world. I began to worry about how viruses could originate in one part of the world and end up in another part in literally the same day. When I was in Uganda, there were very few people that would wake up in central Uganda and go to bed in Minnesota. But that is the case now, and they change planes in Paris or Amsterdam or Brussels, etc., so the possibility for these viruses spreading globally at a much higher speed than before has been there for some time. I think the big surprise is that something like this has not happened since the Spanish flu in the early part of the last century.”
Pieter continues, “When the first signals came in January that we might have another important viral disease I started monitoring it. By the end of January, I was convinced that we were going to have another disease like the Spanish flu. The other thing that caught my eye was that the supply chain that we were relying on for our PPE and other medical products was very heavily in China and Southeast Asia. What really set off my alarm bells was an announcement made February 6 by the Chinese company, Makrite, that produces over 50% of the NIOSH approved N95’s brands in the United States. They posted on their website that the Chinese government was fully commissioning their facilities. Makrite could only produce for the Chinese government. There was a collision between the incredible demand that I expected we would need, and being cut off from our largest supply chain because the product now has to go to China and Southeast Asian countries. I was convinced this was going to have an unhappy end, so instead of limiting my anguish to tweeting, which is what many did, I wanted to try to do something meaningful. I had worked with Baril Corporation before, so contacted them at the end of January, and that is what kicked off this whole project.”
A story not often told is how entrepreneurs made a go of getting start-ups off the ground at a time when many companies were struggling due to COVID-19. When asked to tell this story, Pieter shares, “It put a lot of things on its head. Companies that were struggling because they couldn’t get enough business, suddenly they had more business than they could handle. They were providing a service that now had incredible demand. And companies that had a viable business for as long as mankind has existed, all the way from restaurants, to travel, etcetera, were going all the way to zero. So we were in a position that was not so different from these other companies. Yes, I saw this coming, and I just want to point out that in terms of the heavy lifting for this project I reached out to Baril Corporation and leveraged their expertise and their staff. So I didn’t have to do some heroic effort to get things organized. It was kicking off a project and with an experienced partner.”
“I wasn’t personally scared – people like me can work on Zoom and pretty much isolate ourselves. My wife made some masks very early on. She came up with a design from China that she modified and we put some high-quality filters in. But there are thousands and thousands of people that work on the front lines. There were the most frightening sights of these workers who were taking swabs of people with absolutely completely inadequate protection. So it wasn’t my personal fear but it was this frightening sight that in a country like the US, and European countries as well, that we didn’t have the PPE to protect our front line workers. It wasn’t until March that it was all over CNN. Before that N95 was a completely unknown concept except for small groups that worked with them. Suddenly the entire world knew what they were. My concerns were more for the horrible lack of preparedness for the basic things that we knew we needed.”
Continuing with the ViruDefense beginnings Pieter states, “It’s great to have ideas, but most ideas are not going anywhere until you have partners that know how to make things work. This N95 business is not easy. They are difficult to design and difficult to make. The sourcing of materials to make them became a real challenge. Suddenly the US realized they didn’t have the PPE and suddenly everyone wanted to make them. They quickly realized that the materials needed to make these were no longer made in the US. China had been making these materials as well. You need your supply chain for these materials. Baril Corporation has been in a related space of disposable surgical products for a long time and had relationships and credibility. They could go back to their suppliers and let them know that they wanted to make N95s. They were designed, funded, and ready to go, and Baril Corp. needed its suppliers to step up to work with them on the supply chain. So we solved those problems early on. We had CDC approval and launched in July and have been making them ever since. We’re making a little over 400,000 a week for just-in-time shipping. Our goal is to ramp up production to make 1 million a week in November. That’s a meaningful number. Once you’ve worn an N95 and worn a surgical mask, you see how big the difference is. There are still a lot of people who wear inadequate protection, for example, those who do eye exams and primary care. Wearing a surgical mask is some protection, but it is an unnecessary risk that you can eliminate with a better mask.”
“The Massachusetts Emergency Response Team (M-ERT) has been very valuable for us. The key ingredient for success in our world is an idea, a way to implement it, and a way to finance it. It’s great to have the idea and to be able to implement it, but you need the financing too. We wanted to do this quickly and we also wanted to do it in a way that was not opportunistic economically. We wanted to sell these at uninflated rates and at the rate they normally sold for. In looking for parties to help finance this we wanted to sell to those who needed it the most, not the highest bidder. It was surprisingly hard to get people to participate financially, so I ended up largely self-financing. I am by no means a wealthy individual who could afford to do this, but once you get into it, you keep ongoing. I am fortunate to have a friend who also participated in a material way. It was disappointing and frustrating that we couldn’t get anyone else, but we kept trying to find other sources. Then the M-ERT program was announced, and we applied. We were very grateful to get support from the Baker administration to get our second line funded. With the second line, we got the momentum we needed. If you make 100,000 or 200,000 a week, you don’t really have the leverage to play. You really need to get to a certain mass volume – and with the second line, we were able to get to that mass to then self-fund the third line and then the fourth line. It was really the catalyst we needed and came at the right time.”
There are positive effects beyond N95 mask availability that result from the ViruDefense/Baril Corporation/M-ERT partnership. Making 1 million N95’s a week is largely an automated process and big machines do most of the production. There is also considerable manual involvement, and early on Baril Corporation estimated it would be hiring 85 people to manufacture this. Baril Corporation is in Haverhill, MA and the new hires would be people from surrounding towns. Pieter remarks, “It is a great side effect of what we do. We could offer meaningful employment in an area where there is high unemployment because other industries have been hard hit.”
All businesses weather challenges, successes, and new discoveries. Pieter shares his thoughts regarding these. “Overall our 2 key challenges were supply chain and money, though there was one additional challenge that came as a surprise to us. When we approached NIOSH and said we have an N95, they said, ‘Sorry we are not reviewing those right now.’ It’s like you are in the middle of wartime, and someone has bullets and they say they are not accepting any new applications for military equipment. My compliments to NIOSH, as that issue got resolved and things then went very quickly.”
“As far as successes go, there is actually psychology around it that when you start something like this you see the rosy part and when you get closer you see the things that you didn’t anticipate before. Our success is that we did work through them and got to the finish line. I think that Dan Baril would tell you he got some extra gray hairs trying to make this work.”
“I’ve been in the commercial sector all my career. My new discovery is that I really enjoyed working with the Baker administration that helped us, as well as the other political connections that we had standing by in Washington if we needed it. Sometimes we worried that FEMA would step in and prevent us from buying raw materials, that they would be channeled to other parties. We were trying to make N95’s, and not to be a challenge to 3M or some other company. So it was great to see everyone was interested and could see what we were trying to do and that they supported it and were there for us. It was really great to see how people have their hearts in the right place and are willing to help make this work. It’s been a great journey and I really want to thank everyone for helping us to get this done.”
Closing the conversation, Pieter looks at the big picture and towards preparedness. “The key thing was the staggering unpreparedness. I hope in hindsight that the number one thing that people will remember is not the number of people who have died, which is a horrible thing. We can’t do anything about that but we could have done something about preparedness and the initial denial that masks were the key and that this was an airborne thing. Everything we learned from China and Vietnam was that this was airborne. So it was difficult to sit and listen to wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands, while everyone inhaled it. You see these mask projections now that we’d save 100,000 lives if everyone had started wearing masks earlier because we had them on the shelf in January. In Singapore, they handed out 2 masks for every citizen. For a piece of military hardware, you could have 50 masks for every citizen on the stockpile. I hope that people realize that if you want to keep everyone safe, it’s really great to have the military part, but there are other threats like these viral threats that we were unbelievably unprepared for. And I hope that people will not forget that, so that for the next virus, and there will be another virus, that we will be prepared.”
We commend ViruDefense, Inc. for their big picture view and for being proactive and persistent in their goals to produce PPE. We applaud the impact you are having in the community and across the United States.
To learn more about ViruDefense, Inc. visit their website: www.virudefense.com.