It’s Sunday afternoon. For our interview we’ve adapted to the conditions imposed by the pandemic, so it’s conducted from home via the internet. On the screen of my computer I see the tired but satisfied faces of three volunteers in the Covid-19 Response Greece initiative, which a mere 10 days after getting together had managed to provide thousands of face shields for doctors on the front line of the battle against the coronavirus.
Startuppers and scientists based in Thessaloniki joined forces in an attempt to do that which they know best: provide immediate and practical solutions. “From the start we said that we are not interested in wasting energy on theoretical solutions,” says Dimitris Kourtesis, an entrepreneur and the coordinator of the initiative, explaining that the team decided to focus initially on the manufacture of face shields in order to address the pressing problem posed by the shortage of adequate eye protection for doctors.
That is when Haris Geremtzes and Dimitris Moustakas, co-founders of AidPlex, a startup involved with innovation in the health sector, and Thodoris-Alexandros Marioglou, co-founder of creative solutions provider Veltio, joined the initiative. Working day and night, within three days they had managed to design and create two different prototype shields, one made using 3D printing and the other using laser cutting, in order to test them and to find the first factory that could mass produce them at cost.
Geremtzes and Moustakas describe their first days as a marathon with countless phone calls and hospital visits, hours spent cutting sheets of plastic at a factory one night – and little sleep. “There are no working hours anymore,” Moustakas tells me. “We were called [by a doctor] at 5 in the morning and told about a shortage, that there was a great need. The feeling that creates is one of ‘I need to get out of bed despite the fact that it is 5 in the morning and continue doing what I am doing because someone needs it in the next hour.’”
Their efforts bore fruit when they saw, ready and packed in cardboard boxes, the first 5,000 shields. At the time of writing that number had reached 15,000 shields. The cost for their manufacture was footed by the Medical Association of Thessaloniki, while that for the packaging and transport of the first shipment that went directly to the hospitals was covered by the startups that participated in the effort.
“The best thing is when we are sent messages by individuals who have already received the shields, thanking us for all of this. It’s very moving,” says Geremtzes.
On top of providing thousands of shields in record time, the team also offered the design for their manufacture for free, allowing any company to produce hundreds easily, quickly and at low cost, on the sole condition that they do not seek to profit off them.
“I didn’t know that this community had this kind of power. For me that automatically means that anything is possible,” Kourtesis says, noting that the collective effort will not stop here. Following an open call, Covid-19 Response Greece has already amassed over 160 volunteers, while its members are already also working to create face masks, substitute devices for the non-invasive ventilation of patients, and logistical tools.
The article first appeared in K, Kathimerini’s weekly supplement.