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Researchers work at EnvisionSQ in Guelph, Ont.EnvisionSQ/The Globe and Mail

A made-in-Canada high-tech spray-on lining designed to fight air pollution that lands on doorknobs and transit poles may be part of a silver lining emerging from the cloud of COVID-19.

“When the pandemic hit, we knew we could make a difference,” says Scott Shayko, chief executive officer of EnvisionSQ, based in Guelph, Ont. The eight-year-old firm developed a sterilization coating that uses nanotechnology that, when applied to surfaces, kills bacteria and viruses on contact.

“The coating had the ability to do this before the pandemic, but it was optimized for other uses, such as killing volatile organic compounds that create air pollution in buildings and transit vehicles,” Mr. Shayko explains.

To make it easier to apply in places not anticipated before COVID-19, the company adjusted its formula to make GermStopSQ’s coating transparent, to avoid disfiguring surfaces, and added a bonding agent so the compound would stick better when sprayed on counters, handles and railings. EnvisionSQ also tweaked the formula to optimize it to fight viruses, Mr. Shayko says.

“We were able to do that, and to our surprise, we think we ended up with one of the most effective coatings on the market,” Mr. Shayko says.

“When it comes to viruses, it has the best ‘kill rate’ you can have – better than 99.9 per cent,”

EnvisionSQ is one of eight companies that received federal grants to scale up production through Next Generation Manufacturing Canada, an industry-led group that has given out $21-million toward pandemic-related projects. The fund has received more than 900 expressions of interest from advanced manufacturing companies since it was launched in March.

The other grants went to: ventilator company Canadian Emergency Ventilators Inc., a division of Starfish Medical, in Toronto; medical-supply store BOMImed Inc., in Winnipeg; face-shield firms Molded Precision Components, in Oro-Medonte, Ont., Mosaic Manufacturing, in Toronto, and Burloak Technologies Inc., in Burlington, Ont.; and virus test kit makers Sono Nanotech Inc., in Halifax, and Response Biomedical, Corp., in Vancouver.

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A 200-gallon reactor and feed tank at the EnvisionSQ facility.EnvisionSQ/Handout

The grant money has helped EnvisionSQ to ramp up production to 1,000 litres a week of its COVID-19-fighting coating. “That’s enough solution to coat one million doorknobs, 75,000 kilometres of handrail, the interiors of 8,750 elevators, 400 city buses or 200 passenger airplanes,” Mr. Shayko says.

Amin Mawani, associate professor of accounting and program director of the health industry management program at York University’s Schulich School of Business in Toronto, says there are a number of areas in which research, development and getting products to market are getting a jump-start.

On the research side, there are a few reasons for this, he says, for example, global sharing of data by multicountry teams working on vaccines and other solutions in treatment and prevention.

At the same time, Canada’s federal and provincial governments, as well as others around the world, have reduced the red tape that usually applies when it comes to seeking approval and grants for major research and development.

“This may not last beyond the pandemic, but it is here for now,” Dr. Mawani says.

While international co-operation is sometimes shaky, the sheer amount of funding and resources going into research are bound to make a difference, says Barry Cross, distinguished faculty fellow of operations strategy at the Smith School of Business at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.

“Health care and PPE investments have increased in many areas, and not just with players already in those fields,” Prof. Cross says. “Liquor and beer producers, for example, have converted some operations to make hand sanitizer. Cut-and-sew operations are making masks.” The challenge, he adds, is bringing new research ideas to market quickly.

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EnvisionSQ's sterilizing coating applied to large drums.EnvisionSQ/The Globe and Mail

The drive toward localizing production of certain items and self-sufficiency will pay dividends for Canadians, but many firms in service sectors are realizing that their systems, processes and operating structures, such as online delivery, were not robust enough to support the pandemic economy.

“Many subpar operations are being exposed – they have no online platform, delivery is weeks rather than days, or they have chosen to shut down during the pandemic rather than pivot to a new operating model,” he says. “These organizations will struggle to survive.”

There’s also tension between international co-operation and international competition, perhaps most evident in the race for a safe, effective COVID-19 vaccine. In April, the United States launched Operation Warp Speed, a public-private partnership aiming to speed up the development, creation and distribution of a vaccine. Dozens of vaccine candidates are in trials around the world; more than half a dozen have made it through preliminary testing.

Health Canada approved the first human vaccine trials in May, and Canada is signing deals with multinational pharmaceutical giants, such as Pfizer and Moderna, a U.S. biotech firm, to procure millions of experimental anti-COVID-19 doses that could be deployed as soon as they are deemed safe.

Scientists and health administrators are also learning on the fly about new ways of delivering mental-health services, Dr. Mawani says.

Pre-COVID-19, he says, there was a widespread feeling that Canadian health care, while solid, was slow at innovation. “That all changed in March. COVID has forced everyone to look at health care differently.”

Hospitals and long-term care facilities have been forced to co-operate because they’ve been sharing front-line workers, for example. “The silos between the facilities will slowly disappear, for the good of patients,” he says.

According to David Willows, executive vice-president of innovation and marketing at Green Shield Canada, which provides supplemental health and dental coverage for services that may not be covered by provincial and territorial health plans, there has been a significant uptake in demand for online mental-health services. Between March and May, downloads of Green Shield’s online mental-health therapy app doubled, and there has been a 55-per-cent increase in online treatment using the app, he says.

As Dr. Mawani puts it, "mental health’s time has come. There’s a realization that mental health equals health.”

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