When it became apparent this year that the COVID-19 pandemic was like nothing anyone had ever seen, Myant Inc. decided to do something few companies do. It asked for help.
In March, the Toronto-based textile computing firm put out an open call to other firms to work with it to create products to help fight the virus. The company designs, develops and produces wearables embedded with sensors that can react and send and receive data to the human body, which can, for example, detect and adjust to body temperature changes.
The company’s initial response to COVID-19 was to manufacture personal protective equipment (PPE). That was important, but for a tech firm that normally works on developing “smart” textiles, such as clothing that can measure biometric information or deliver medications when there are changes within the body, it was very basic.
“The call to action didn’t work out exactly the way we expected,” says Ilaria Varoli, the company’s executive vice-president. Myant put a lot of effort into ramping up mask production and it went well, “but it didn’t require much collaboration,” she admits.
The goal for PPE production was to be able to meet the demand quickly. By April 20, Myant had the capacity to produce 340,000 washable, wearable masks every month, with plans to ramp up to more than one million a month and include other types of PPE such as gloves.
“We figured that we have the manpower, we have the machines and we also have spools of yarn on hand to make PPE,” Ms. Varoli says. “The other result is that we’re hiring people. We have about 100 employees but we’re looking to add another 30.”
Myant is hardly alone in having to think fast and adjust its business because of the pandemic, says Robert Asselin, senior vice-president of policy at the Business Council of Canada.
“Everyone has had to pivot,” he says. “For some, it has been better than for others.”
But a real test for companies – even the successful ones – will come as the COVID-19 situation changes and develops, Mr. Asselin warns.
“It’s important to have the ability to see whether the demand for what you pivoted to will be sustained over time. You don’t want to pivot to producing masks if the demand goes way down later,” he says.
It’s equally important for a company like Myant to be open-minded about where its core business, tech-based textiles, will go postpandemic. They might not want to focus on face masks forever.
“That’s the risk,” Mr. Asselin says. “No one really knows right now what the world will be like in two years.”
“The key word [for companies] that pivot is ‘temporary,’ ” says David Johnston, program director, master of supply-chain management at York University’s Schulich School of Business in Toronto.
“Over the long term, things may change,” he notes. “There may be less demand for face masks and more for face shields, for example. Also, producers will have to negotiate with governments about whether to produce PPE for stockpiling.”
Prof. Johnston says that “it’s going to be tough” for some companies to pivot back, adding that it’s necessary to look at how to apply prepandemic core business to the new normal.
“Companies should go back and look at what they were doing before and see what still applies,” he notes. “A lot of things will change, but all the problems that companies tried to address before COVID-19 aren’t going to disappear.”
Since March, Myant’s call to collaborate has taken some unexpected turns, including a partnership in the works with a tech-wear company to develop high-tech clothing after COVID-19 is gone.
The imminent partnership is yet another breakthrough for a company which, in its 10 years in business, has focused on developing tech textiles – materials embedded with sensors, yarns and fabrics that can detect coldness or heat.
“We had been talking about working with [this particular] leading brand for two years. Maybe it would have happened anyway, but I think meeting with companies to collaborate about COVID-19 speeded things up,” says Ms. Varoli, adding that she cannot share the name of the company until the deal is finalized.
Myant’s quick effort to work with other companies and governments in the COVID-19 crisis seems to demonstrate the axiom that a crisis can bring opportunities.
Its request to collaborate to fight the coronavirus turned out to be consistent with the philosophy of an ambitious young firm looking forward. “When the pandemic started, the company we were talking with kind of disappeared,” Ms. Varoli says. “But then a month later they came back and said we were right [about working together]. I guess they saw what we were doing about the pandemic.”
“All enterprises … need to be connecting and working together,” the company’s call to action stated on its website. “We are asking potential partners to come forward so that we can collectively build a solution that helps keep Canadians safe and healthy in these unprecedented times.”
To start the process, Myant offered its 80,000-square-foot textile-manufacturing facility to anyone or any company that could help. Their list of possible collaborators included doctors and health care providers with ideas, artificial intelligence experts who could build systems to analyze virus data, distributors, retailers and even competing firms that make medical technology and wearables.
“We have all kinds of scientists and PhDs in-house, and we collaborate with a lot of outside experts too. So, the masks we created are good. They’re reusable and washable – and simultaneously we’ve started developing a medical grade mask,” Ms. Varoli says.
In addition to increasing the quality of N95 medical grade masks for superior safety, the company is also making a specialty mask for dentists and dental assistants.
“After that we want to try masks with sensors that can take your temperature,” Ms. Varoli says. “We’re not just going to sit around. We’ve just kept on working and we won’t stop.”