By Dr Elliot Street
Co-founder and chief executive of Inovus Medical
After receiving SBRI funding we have been working for the last 18 months on a laparoscopic simulator, the LapAR™, which combines a box trainer set with the high fidelity of a virtual reality system, it is completely unique.
This technology can help surgeons reach a high level of competency before they start to operate on patients, improving safety. We want to make this the de facto platform for surgical training in the UK, making us the safest country on the planet for patients undergoing surgery.
When COVID happened we wanted to help and felt the best way we could do this was to leverage our additive manufacturing capabilities, more specifically our 3D printing, for ventilator parts and for visors.
Visors and ventilator parts
Early in the pandemic, lots of people were 3D-printing visors but in relatively small numbers and we realised that we could help bolster available supplies. Using our SLS 3D printers we were able to produce thousands of visors per day; eventually we supplied more than 20,000 visors in four or five weeks. We built the technical files and tested them to the required spec, ensuring they were designed, manufactured and delivered to the right standards.
We built a temporary, semi-clean room in the middle of our factory to set up an assembly line and went from deciding to do it, asking people if they wanted them, then designing and building the manufacturing lines and delivering the first visors in under a week.
We had to move quickly to meet the demand for the visors and as such increased our manufacturing workforce by 100 per cent, adding another seven jobs to meet the demand.
Increasing local jobs at a time of uncertainty, and before the furlough scheme had been announced, was a great feeling.
The other project was the ventilator challenge; we discussed entering the challenge ourselves but decided not to put our hat in the ring for it in order to ensure we maintained focus and delivered on our commitments to the SBRI project. The company we bought our printer from are the main supplier to the Formula 1 industry. As a result of these connections the F1 ventilator project team asked us to be part of their critical supply chain. So we maxed out our printer with components, printing out hundreds and hundreds of these ventilator parts to absolute precision.
We delivered the ventilator parts four days later and it takes two days to print them. It showed the ability of our team to rapidly pivot while maintaining lots of other important projects. It was very exciting and a really good example of the power of additive manufacturing.
And it shows the importance of on-shoring, having that technology here in the UK. If they relied on printers all over Europe or China there is no way those parts would have been delivered in four days. It is expensive technology, not easy to acquire or to keep going but the value it adds to UK manufacturing is immense.
War room planning
Before we did all this we constructed our own ‘war room’ and plans for offensive and defensive operations, looking at what we needed to do defensively and then what would be most critical to keep the business going forward. We decided we needed an even closer focus on SBRI, to have a product ready to launch.
We saw an increased need for the Lap trainer due to surgery being cancelled and the risk of surgeons becoming deskilled, so as part of our war room planning we ring fenced the key staff members and said, ‘even if a director asks you to do a job on one of the pivot activities, your response is that you are not allowed to’.
Then we devised our workforce plan around the pivot projects and looked at what we needed and increased our workforce accordingly.
Even though it can seem like there are a million different fires to put out, the most important thing for an organisation’s leadership team is to have the discipline to hit the pause button.
Otherwise we would have zero direction during a time of huge uncertainty without sight of things returning to normal.
Effectively, you need to rewrite your business plan for the ‘new normal’ and that is not easy to do because it takes a long time to build a successful business plan.
We also learned and we mandated that, when something like COVID is going on, which no one is trained in dealing with, it was important to adopt a very clear approach to decision making.
We called it ‘no regrets’ decision making; having the clear strategy that once you have clarity on every element of the business in the new normal, if something happens that you hadn’t foreseen, there are no regrets. We say ‘that’s a good learning point, let’s now move on’.
We told all the stakeholders in the company; our investors, institutional or high net worth, and SBRI. We said this is our approach, we have stripped everything right back, this is the information we have to hand, these are the decisions we are making, we cannot guarantee the outcomes but we will not have regrets and no one will be held to account in a negative way as everyone is making the best decisions they can with the information they have.
We couldn’t wait till a Board meeting once a month to discuss really critical elements, we were making big decisions every hour in the first three weeks of COVID so we held our war room meetings daily and scaled these back over time as we got a handle on things.
One of the most important things as part of our war room planning was communication.
The level of communication in the first six to eight weeks of COVID was way beyond normal.
We were communicating with total transparency and sharing information that would often be kept at management level, throughout the organisation.
We wrote to all staff at least once-weekly, updating them on everything we were doing. If they are well communicated with and can expect lots of detail, it allows them to focus on their own key tasks.
We treated our staff how I would want to be treated – which is how we treat them every day, with respect and transparency. We did everything we could to keep them safe, we stepped up our communications and we managed to not only protect their jobs but also created work for more people.
I am really proud of everyone involved in our response to COVID. From our board members and investors right through to the manufacturing operatives we all pulled together to ensure that we could have a positive impact on the response to the pandemic and at the same time kept our core business moving forward, we are lucky to have such a committed and talented team.
Story told on 22 June 2020