20 April 2020

Supporting Our Local Communities in South America: How A Company Reinvented Itself To Save Others

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During this difficult time, Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Company have been doing a lot to support our people and the communities in which we work and live. Our CEO George Whitesides spoke with one of our Sr. Directors at The Spaceship Company, Santiago Barrerra, to hear about the work he and his wife are doing to support their native home of Colombia and how their work is positively impacting South America.

Their creative thinking has meant that they reinvented themselves in a way that is now helping save lives through the work they are doing to support medics with PPE supplies, and they have generated new jobs in doing so.

How was your company in Colombia impacted by the pandemic?

My wife and I are majority owners of a Colombian company called Mebi Metrologia Biomedica S.A. It is an accredited metrology laboratory that provides services to the health industry in the region and employs around 30 people. We have been in business for around 12 years – and have over 600 customers, including hospitals, clinics and laboratories, with presence in every major Colombian city.

When Covid-19 hit, we knew that our company was going to be vulnerable. Firstly, most of our customers closed their doors to non-medical personnel – our work is predominantly performed on-site, so this was going to be a significant issue. Secondly, internal flights and travel within the country suddenly became very difficult or impossible, so our teams were, in any case, unable to travel to those sites. We came to the conclusion that we probably wouldn’t be able to survive this without acting quickly.

The question was: how do we reinvent our company, in order to not only survive through this, but to help our communities at a time of great need?

How did you shift the focus of your company?

We knew that we wanted to ensure the safety of our staff, our families, and wider society; whilst also finding a way to support the Colombian health sector, which is currently under greater strain than ever before. Therefore, it was vital we were able to determine what our main goals were and how we were going to achieve them

Our culture – driven by what we’ve learnt from Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Company – set us up to adapt to this change in approach; from the importance of strategic clarity, to setting goals, to placing purpose at the heart of everything we do. Without this knowledge, we wouldn’t have been able to shift, scale and mobilize as well as we have.

We then focused on the two areas we determined would benefit us and our communities most:

  • We wanted to help people

  • We wanted to help the health sector

With these goals in mind, and by utilising our existing network of connections in the Colombian health sector, we got to work.

What are the projects you pursued to deliver on these goals? 

We pursued several projects that made use of the resources at our disposal, across sales, distribution, manufacturing, and industrial design.

Sale and distribution of masks

Face masks are, of course, one of the most basic pieces of equipment available for medical personnel to protect themselves. We knew that stocks would quickly run low, as they have across the world, so we started reviewing local needs and proposed a solution. We reached out to two local clothing manufacturers – Maneky Distribuciones and Agucor – to see if they could adjust their operations to produce them.

The following day, we tested their prototypes to ensure they met medical standards, and had an order for 1.7 million masks filled by the following morning – with an option to order 10 million more. With this supply, we’ve been able to create a new ‘shop’ – dedicated to mask supply – which has created over 100 new jobs, and we’re working with five other suppliers in the region.

Partnership with Multiplo to manufacture masks

We also realized that we had resources which would help us design and build mask production machines ourselves, with the help of partners. We joined forces with Multiplo, a company with many years of experience in the designing and manufacturing electric vehicles.

We set to work, Multiplo focusing on the manufacturing and design, and Mebi Metrologia taking charge of the administration, marketing and distribution channels.

Within one week, we had designed a machine and were closing an order for 50 million face mask units – an order that’s going to require a plant and 3 new machines! We’ve sourced all parts locally, and expect to have the warehouse and the machines built in around 2 weeks, ready to start production in mid-May. We expect this project alone to sustain around 30 jobs.

Partnerships to develop, test, build and distribute ventilators

Since we began our work supporting the local healthcare community, we have entered into partnerships with several companies to build, test and sell medical ventilators, critical equipment for intensive care wards across the world, which are in staggeringly short supply.

We have offered our services to multiple manufacturers who are developing open sourced or proprietary ventilator designs to bring to market. These new models require testing, validation and certification – a service that Mebi Metrologia specializes in and can quickly pivot its resources towards.

  • For Iron Heat, a company developing an open sourced model, we have conducted initial testing and are in the process of helping import components to construct 20 new units.

  • For OVO, a local Colombian manufacturer, we have helped conduct first stage testing and are almost ready to certify. This project is particularly unique, since it has allowed the re-purposing of automotive parts for the design – reducing the need to depend on the supply of medical components.

  • Industrias Sampedro, a company that is involved in a large, collaborative initiative called InnspiraMED, also reached out to us for support in testing and certification of its ventilator design, and we have been able to provide them with rapid testing resources. This week, the company successfully conducted preclinical trials in operating rooms of the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine and Zootechnics of CES University in Medellín.

What’s next?

Last week, I had a remote birthday celebration for a friend who lives in Ecuador. Hearing some of his stories, and seeing some of the things that are happening in our neighbouring nation, I ended the conversation concerned and feeling that we’re still not doing enough.

That’s why this is just the beginning for us – we’re already talking to other customers and suppliers that we have relationships with, and are exploring the possibility of distributing FDA-approved oxygen hoods that The Spaceship Company has developed across South America – another innovative and much-needed piece of equipment.

Mebi Metrologia will continue taking every step within its means to help our employees, friends, family and communities through this crisis, whilst continuing to lend our support to healthcare workers across South America. They are the real heroes.

GEORGE WHITESIDES

GEORGE WHITESIDES

SPACE ADVISORY BOARD CHAIR

George T. Whitesides is the Chair of the Space Advisory Board, where he is responsible for bringing together aerospace leaders to advise the Virgin Galactic senior management team on the journey towards regular commercial spaceflight, developing the next generation vehicles and exploring new opportunities. Previously, George served as the Chief Space Officer of Virgin Galactic, spearheading the development of future technologies, including high speed, point-to-point travel and orbital flight, after stepping down as CEO in 2020.

George joined Virgin Galactic in 2010 as Chief Executive Officer. During George’s 10 years with the Company, he built the company from 30 people to a workforce of over 900, successfully guiding Virgin Galactic through its human space flight R&D and flight test program, culminating in two space flights. These historic flights saw the first humans launched into space from US soil since the retirement of the Space Shuttle, as well as the first woman to fly on a commercial space vehicle. George led the transition of operations from Mojave, California to Spaceport America, New Mexico, and oversaw the company’s successful public listing making it a multi-billion dollar company and creating the world’s first publicly traded human spaceflight venture.

Prior to Virgin Galactic, George served as Chief of Staff for NASA. Upon departure from the American space agency, he received the Distinguished Service Medal, the highest award the agency confers.

George’s volunteer service includes Caltech’s Space Innovation Council, Princeton University’s Advisory Council for Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, and the Antelope Valley Economic Development & Growth Enterprise. He is a fellow of the UK Royal Aeronautical Society and an associate fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

He previously served as Vice Chair of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, chair of the Reusable Launch Vehicle Working Group for the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee, a member of the Board of Directors of Virgin Galactic, a member of the Board of Trustees of Princeton University, co-chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Space Technologies, and the Board of Virgin Unite USA. George has testified on American space policy before the United States Senate, the United States House of Representatives, and the President’s Commission on Implementation of United States Space Exploration Policy. An honors graduate of Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs, George later earned a master’s degree in geographic information systems and remote sensing from the University of Cambridge, and a Fulbright Scholarship to Tunisia. George is a licensed private pilot and certified parabolic flight coach.

He resides in California with his wife Loretta and two children.

CHRIS HADFIELD

CHRIS HADFIELD

SPACE ADVISORY BOARD MEMBER

Colonel Chris Hadfield is a heavily decorated astronaut, engineer, and test pilot who has commanded the International Space Station. Formerly NASA’s Director of Operations in Russia and veteran of three spaceflights, Hadfield’s many awards include the Order of Canada, the Meritorious Service Cross and the NASA Exceptional Service Medal. Hadfield is a three-time NYT bestselling author, a renowned musician, an adjunct professor at the University of Waterloo, chair of the board of the Open Lunar Foundation, and host of several internationally acclaimed television series. In addition, Hadfield leads the space stream at the Creative Destruction Lab, one of the world’s top tech incubators.

DR SANDRA MAGNUS

DR SANDRA MAGNUS

SPACE ADVISORY BOARD MEMBER

Dr. Sandra H. “Sandy” Magnus is the Principal at AstroPlanetview, LLC. Most recently she served as the Deputy Director of Engineering in the Office of the Secretary of Defense for the Undersecretary of Research and Engineering. In that role she served as the “Chief Engineer” for the Department of Defense establishing engineering policy, propagating best practices and working to connect the engineering community across the department.

Dr. Magnus is the former Executive Director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA). Prior to leading AIAA, she was a member of the NASA Astronaut Corps for 16 years. During her time at NASA she flew in space on the STS-112 shuttle mission in 2002, and on the final shuttle flight, STS-135, in 2011. In addition, she flew to the International Space Station on STS-126 in November 2008, served as flight engineer and science officer on Expedition 18, and returned home on STS-119 after four and a half months on board.

Following her assignment on Station, she served at NASA Headquarters in the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate. Her last duty at NASA, after STS-135, was as the deputy chief of the Astronaut Office.

While at NASA, Dr. Magnus worked extensively with the international community, including the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), as well as with Brazil on facility-type payloads. She also spent time in Russia developing and integrating operational products and procedures for the International Space Station.

Before joining NASA, Dr. Magnus worked for McDonnell Douglas Aircraft Company as a stealth engineer. While at McDonnell Douglas, she worked on internal R&D and on the Navy’s A-12 Attack Aircraft program.

Dr. Magnus has received numerous awards, including the NASA Space Flight Medal, the NASA Distinguished Service Medal, the NASA Exceptional Service Medal, and the 40 at 40 Award (given to former collegiate women athletes to recognize the impact of Title IX).

DAVID A. WHELAN

DAVID A. WHELAN

SPACE ADVISORY BOARD MEMBER

Dr. David A. Whelan is the SVP Chief-Scientist of Cubic Corporation. Dr. Whelan retired from Boeing in 2017, as the Vice President, Engineering (BDS) and Board of Directors for HRL Laboratories. Whelan served as Director of the Tactical Technology Office of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and began his career at Northrop as designer of the B-2 Stealth Bomber. Whelan is a member of the National Academy of Engineering, a fellow of the American Physical Society and IEEE. He earned his Ph.D. Physics from UCLA; He holds over 75 US patents.