Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Support Quality Journalism.
The Globe and Mail
First Access to Latest
Investment News
Collection of curated
e-books and guides
Inform your decisions via
Globe Investor Tools
per week
for first 24 weeks

Enjoy unlimited digital access
Cancel Anytime
Enjoy Unlimited Digital Access
Canada’s most-awarded
newsroom for a reason
Stay informed for a
lot less, cancel anytime
“Exemplary reporting on
COVID-19” – Herman L
per week
for 24 weeks
Get full access to
Just $1.99per week for the first 24weeks
Just $1.99per week for the first 24weeks
var select={root:".js-sub-pencil",control:".js-sub-pencil-control",open:"o-sub-pencil--open",closed:"o-sub-pencil--closed"},dom={},allowExpand=!0;function pencilInit(o){var e=arguments.length>1&&void 0!==arguments[1]&&arguments[1];select.root=o,dom.root=document.querySelector(select.root),dom.root&&(dom.control=document.querySelector(select.control),dom.control.addEventListener("click",onToggleClicked),setPanelState(e),window.addEventListener("scroll",onWindowScroll),dom.root.removeAttribute("hidden"))}function isPanelOpen(){return dom.root.classList.contains(}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](,dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){window.requestAnimationFrame(function() {var l=isPanelOpen(),n=0===(document.body.scrollTop||document.documentElement.scrollTop);n||l||!allowExpand?n&&l&&(allowExpand=!0,setPanelState(!1)):(allowExpand=!1,setPanelState(!0))});}pencilInit(".js-sub-pencil",!1); // via darwin-bg var slideIndex = 0; carousel(); function carousel() { var i; var x = document.getElementsByClassName("subs_valueprop"); for (i = 0; i < x.length; i++) { x[i].style.display = "none"; } slideIndex++; if (slideIndex> x.length) { slideIndex = 1; } x[slideIndex - 1].style.display = "block"; setTimeout(carousel, 2500); } //

CEO of Safe Direct Medical Supplies, Anatoliy Melnichuk and investor Michele Romanow are photographed in Toronto, on July 30, 2020.

Carlos Osorio/The Globe and Mail

Dragons’ Den star Michele Romanow and business partner Anatoliy Melnichuk set out to do a good deed when they went looking for scarce personal protective equipment in late March as the COVID-19 pandemic spread.

Within days, they had flown 100,000 N95 respirator masks to Canada, sourced from Chinese manufacturers through contacts Mr. Melnichuk knew from his days running the partners’ Toronto e-commerce startup Buytopia. They donated half the masks to organizations in need, then took to social media to ask if anyone needed the rest.

“My phone erupted,” Mr. Melnichuk said. “We had at least 300 calls a day. I realized this is a bigger need and we could probably help.”

Story continues below advertisement

Four months later, the pair have turned that charitable act into what Ms. Romanow calls “one of the fastest-growing companies I’ve dealt with.”

Their Safe Direct Medical Supplies online marketplace – Mr. Melnichuk is chief executive; Ms. Romanow is a director – has imported and distributed 10 million masks, four million gowns, thousands of bottles of hand sanitizer and hundreds of thousands of face shields throughout Canada.

That has quickly established the startup as a credible, dependable and affordable source of Health Canada-compliant PPE for medical professionals and industrial users at a time when the market has been flooded with faulty or overpriced products by those capitalizing on a global shortage.

Safe Direct has also partnered with several professional bodies, including the Ontario Medical Association, the BC Pharmacy Association and the New Brunswick Association of Optometrists, to get products to members.

“There were a lot of individuals that contacted the OMA to say, ‘We have PPE we can source,‘” said OMA president Samantha Hill, whose association represents most Ontario doctors. “It often turned out either they were very expensive, supply was limited … or they were just fraudulent and couldn’t prove they met Canadian standards.”

Anatoliy Melnichuk and Michele Romanow have started a new venture where they buy PPE (personal protective equipment) in China, and send them by plane to Canada to distribute to health care workers and for sale.

Carlos Osorio/The Globe and Mail

Safe Direct “was different,” Dr. Hill said. “They had quality control standards in place and certification to those standards,” and had sorted out logistics.

After a thorough vetting, the OMA added Safe Direct to its members’ online marketplace in July.

Story continues below advertisement

“During the pandemic we’ve needed access to enhanced PPE [but] didn’t have it” as Ontario prioritized hospitals and front-line workers and regular suppliers couldn’t keep up, added David Stevenson, chair of the Ontario Dental Association’s return-to-practice working group. “Safe Direct is one of those [that] came to our rescue.”

Mr. Melnichuk and Ms. Romanow have been business partners since studying engineering together at Queen’s University in Kingston in the mid-2000s. Their first venture was a caviar fishery in the late 2000s, followed by Buytopia and SnapSaves, an online coupon service bought by Groupon in 2014. Ms. Romanow went on to TV stardom and now leads alternative financier Clearbanc, while Mr. Melnichuk manages their investments in other startups.

The idea to get into PPE supply came when Mr. Melnichuk’s former girlfriend told him in March how critical the shortage was in New York, where she works as a radiologist. After the response to their initial mask run, Mr. Melnichuk realized the partners could do more by helping supply-starved health care institutions.

But they realized to do that effectively – and quickly – would be complicated. “Every touch point had major issues,” including unavailability of planes, cancellations and competition for scarce goods, Ms. Romanow said.

They decided to directly source supply from manufacturers and forgo layers of middlemen. “For me the inflection point was early, when Anatoliy said, ‘We have to book our own jumbo jet,’” she said. “It was like, you’ll only solve this problem if you invest significant capital.”

The pair have since put $5-million of their own funds into the business.

Story continues below advertisement

Mr. Melnichuk struck deals with long-established, certified PPE producers in China, hired 15 people and built an e-commerce site for approved practitioners to place orders. And he began chartering planes – a fully loaded Boeing 747 costs almost $1-million a trip – on a weekly basis in April to bring products, placing further orders by sea.

At first he distributed products from his apartment, then farmed out the task to a pharmaceutical-certified facility in Toronto’s Scarborough neighbourhood to turn incoming shipments into order-sized mailings, from boxes to pallet-loads. The company now also warehouses and distributes products from facilities in Brampton, Ont., and Vancouver.

It has also contacted other associations, including the Canadian Pharmacists Association, for which it secured 200,000 masks in the spring that the group sent to members in need. CPhA CEO Glen Doucet said Mr. Melnichuk “was very diligent and responsive [and] interested in making sure pharmacists were a priority.”

The company is now considering several options – expanding to the United States, adding more products including non-medical grade PPE for corporate clients, and even making products locally.

“We’ll play it by ear” to gauge customer traction and loyalty, Mr. Melnichuk said. “So far it’s been positive.” In the next few months he said the partners may raise outside capital “and see where this can go.”

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow the author of this article:

Follow topics related to this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies