A local 3D-printing company, which got its start at Memorial’s Faculty of Medicine, is helping to alleviate the personal protective equipment (PPE) shortage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic by making its own.
PolyUnity was founded by fourth-year medical student Travis Pickett, Dr. Michael Bartellas (MD ’19), an ENT resident in Ottawa, and Dr. Stephen Ryan (MD ’18), a family medicine resident in St. John’s.
Partners in health care
In February, PolyUnity signed on as an innovation partner with Eastern Health through its Living Labs program, which places entrepreneurs in its facilities to work with medical professionals on new products and solutions.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Canada, Eastern Health reached out to PolyUnity for help with PPE to protect their frontline workers from contracting the virus while on the job.
Mr. Pickett says they jumped at the opportunity to help and started gathering resources, including 3D printers, filament and scanners from the Faculty of Medicine’s MUNMED 3D laboratory.
Dr. Patricia Cousins, MUNMED 3D staff lead, along with faculty lead Dr. Sarah Power—jointly appointed to Engineering and Applied Science—were just getting the MUNMED 3D print shop off the ground when the pandemic hit.
“Stephen Ryan had already approached me about a collaboration. Then, boom, they got the contract to print for Eastern Health and were in dire need of printers,” said Dr. Cousins.
“We quickly got permission from Dean Margaret Steele and worked out a legal agreement to lend them the printers, take them offsite and let them borrow some materials that we had in the lab to speed up their printing capability,” she recalled. Teams from the vice-president (research) portfolio also played an integral role in setting up the agreement.
“Within a week or so of discussions, four of us loaded up our cars and we had a major contribution to the call for PPE.”
PolyUnity is using the printers to produce headbands for face shields while the visor is sourced from the Department of Technical Services.
Mr. Pickett says the company is working with about 25 printers for now and can produce two headbands in about 25 minutes on each one.
On March 31, the group at PolyUnity got word that the shields were certified as a Class 1 medical device by Health Canada and they then passed Eastern Health’s quality assurance process. So on April 10, Dr. Ryan hand delivered some of the 2,100 face shields to Eastern Health.
“From design to prototyping to Health Canada approval to quality assurance testing with Eastern Health and finally manufacturing, we had a turnaround time of three weeks to the day.” said Mr. Pickett. “We are hoping to continue to build this effort and produce approximately 4,000 a week in the immediate future.”
PolyUnity is also using the printers to produce parts for pump adapters they’ve created for the Newfoundland Liquor Corporation (NLC) hand sanitizer bottles being deployed in hospitals across the province.
The company collaborated with Technical Services to complete the time-sensitive design and fabrication work.
“Tech Services’ role was in preparing prototypes and assessing production methods for the visors, which were cut on our waterjet machine,” said Director Rick Meaney, noting the unit is ISO 9001 registered.
“We also produced 3D printed pump adapters and mounting brackets for hand sanitizers produced by NLC for health authorities.”
Mr. Meaney says his technical team forged its partnership with PolyUnity thanks to ongoing relationships with researchers and staff within Medicine. He also says his staff worked under very tight timelines in the midst of the on-going COVID-19 pandemic.
“I am immensely proud of my team and their dedication and creativity,” he told the Gazette. “They have the ability to respond quickly to the needs of the health authorities.”
Driven by a vision
The founders of PolyUnity began their journey as co-founders of MUNMed 3D – the province’s first biomedical 3D printing facility. With funding from the Atlantic Canadian Opportunities Agency and support from the Faculty of Medicine, this was expanded into the Med 3D Network, allowing access to 3D printing in rural locations across Newfoundland and Labrador as well as Atlantic Canada.
Dr. Gary Paterno of the Faculty of Medicine mentored the group when they started their 3D endeavor saying they’ve had this dream since day one.
“They made it happen just as they envisioned,” Dr. Paterno said. “In my 32-year career you have a few students that take your breath away and make your role as a professor worthwhile. Stephen, Michael and Travis are three. They are smart, driven, personable, honest and respectful. I just gave advice, some may have been useful, and let them fly.”
“Being a part of or starting a company was never in my personal plan. If someone asked me five years ago if I’d be doing this I’d probably be very confused,” admitted Mr. Pickett. “Five years ago Stephen wrote a theoretical research paper as a first year medical student. It outlined the potential uses of 3D printing in Newfoundland and Labrador for remote medical equipment manufacturing in the context of resource limitations and supply chain disruption. From there, Michael and I began medical school in subsequent years and the MUNMed 3D project came to life. So in some ways, we have been thinking about this for a long time.”