By Jerry Underwood
Made In Alabama
The coronavirus crisis has brought unimagined challenges, but businesses across Alabama have answered the call to help health care workers and their communities through these difficult times.
Alabama businesses, from large-scale manufacturers to small, family-owned enterprises, have shown a willingness to go the extra mile to provide assistance during this unprecedented public health emergency.
As the COVID-19 pandemic began to emerge, clothing designers, textile manufacturers, distilleries and a host of other small businesses across the state quickly transitioned their daily operations to produce protective gear, medical equipment and hand sanitizer.
“Alabama’s business community and the state’s people have shown an incredible resilience during this crisis,” said Greg Canfield, secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce.
“These efforts really speak to the core of the Alabama spirit and will help us get moving forward on the road to recovery.”
Here are five ways that businesses and organizations in Alabama have made important contributions to the pandemic fight.
No. 1: Ingenious solutions
Auburn University engineers developed a method to convert ordinary CPAP machines into emergency ventilators that could help patients stricken by the serious respiratory illness caused by coronavirus.
The device — called RE-InVENT – can be assembled in four hours using about $700 worth of parts in addition to a standard CPAP machine, compared to the typical hospital ventilator price tag of $25,000 and up.
“What started as pure intellectual curiosity quickly grew into an emotional race against time to potentially save lives,” said Michael Zabala, a faculty member in Auburn’s Samuel Ginn College of Engineering and one of the project’s drivers.
The Alabama Productivity Center at the University of Alabama’s Culverhouse College of Business has been involved in the fight, along with partners at Alabama Power’s Technology Applications Center and UAB’s School of Engineering.
An impromptu effort to produce protective face shields using 3D printers quickly grew into a network that included individuals, three high schools and companies including Mercedes-Benz’s Alabama plant.
The network has now produced thousands of face shields for health care facilities and first responders in central and west Alabama.
“This is a no-fee project for us, but it is probably one of the most impactful we will do this year,” said Alan Hill, the APC’s executive director.
No. 2: Pivoting production
Across Alabama, many businesses are finding ways to make a difference. A partnership between Birmingham wedding dress designer Heidi Elnora and Moulton’s Red Land Cotton produced face masks. In late March, Huntsville’s Yellowhammer Brewing converted its entire production line to hand sanitizer.
Cullman-based HomTex Inc. began producing reusable cotton face masks after orders for its traditional bed linens declined, turning out more than 1 million masks in short order.
With support from the Alabama Department of Commerce and others, the family firm now plans to invest $5 million to become a full-time domestic supplier of medical-grade surgical masks.
“We are going to make hundreds of millions of these surgical masks,” HomTex President Jeremy Wootten said. “The production capacity will be about 350 million of these annually.”
In Mobile, Calagaz Printing, which normally produces menus and other items for restaurants, shifted its line to produce protective face shields, ultimately making more than 150,000 of them.
“It’s been great for our employees, for them to hold their head high as they make an impact in these times and also be able to have work to do,” said Calagaz’s Michael Cuesta.
No. 3: Contributing brainpower
The state’s research institutions and universities were quick to join the effort against COVID-19, demonstrating their impressive capabilities.
Birmingham’s Southern Research is working with a New York biopharmaceutical firm to test a potential coronavirus vaccine and is collaborating with several pharmaceutical companies to develop new research tools.
In addition, Southern Research launched an internal program to identify drugs that are already FDA-approved that could be effective against COVID-19, repurposing them so they can be quickly incorporated into treatments.
Scientists at UAB, meanwhile, are active on many fronts.
UAB teamed with biopharmaceutical company Altimmune for pre-clinical trials of a vaccine candidate and participated in a global trial of the investigational drug remdesivir, which has received emergency approval as a treatment for the coronavirus disease.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has showcased the vital importance of UAB to Alabama and the world,” UAB President Ray L. Watts said. “We continue to leverage research and innovation, community service, patient care and education to make a big difference.”
No. 4: Retooling resources
Toyota’s Huntsville engine factory produced 7,500 protective face shields for local hospitals. Honda Alabama’s engineers also stepped up to use 3D printers to manufacture face shields for health care workers.
Mercedes-Benz’s Alabama operation launched a comprehensive relief effort featuring donations of funds, goods and services valued at more than $500,000. Along with support for the United Way, Mercedes workers sewed N100 face masks and provided the Alabama Productivity Center with 600 face shield headbands.
Mercedes also donated 100,000 surgical masks and 7,000 N95 washable masks to the Alabama Department of Public Health, with additional PPE donations to hospitals and emergency management agencies.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is placing an incredible amount of strain on families and on the nonprofits and groups trying to assist them in making ends meet,” Mercedes Alabama President Michael Goebel said.
“We are all connected, and we have to pull together to help get this community through this crisis.”
No. 5: Bioscience advances
Alabama’s bioscience startups, meanwhile, have mobilized to combat COVID-19, helping to advance urgent work that could lead to new treatments and vaccines.
This includes Birmingham-based TriAltus Bioscience LLC, which developed protein purification technology to accelerate research into a new vaccine under development in Oregon.
“It’s rewarding to know that our product can help expedite the search for a COVID-19 vaccine,” TriAltus CEO Bob Shufflebarger said.
In Huntsville, a collaboration including iRepertoire, a diagnostic technology company, is seeking to learn how the human immune system responds to the virus that causes COVID-19. Partners are Huntsville Hospital and the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology.
“By understanding the immune system of patients that have effectively fought the pathogen, we can pinpoint the exact identity of cells that effectively eliminate the virus out of millions of possibilities,” said Dr. Jian Han of iRepertoire.
This story originally appeared on the Alabama Department of Commerce’s Made in Alabama website.