Tests, masks and apps: The Irish companies responding to new demands
Many businesses are adapting in innovative ways to the challenge of Covid-19
Ciara Donlon of Theya Healthcare has created reusable, sustainably produced, naturally antibacterial and breathable bamboo fibre face masks.
HiberGene has focused on development of new diagnostic tests for infectious diseases since 2015. Up to January 2020 they had developed 12 products that detect diseases like meningitis, group B streptococcus and sexually transmitted infections. The company’s approach has been to simplify and innovate, particularly in the area of sample handling and provide fast results for tests where time is an important factor.
When the Coronavirus outbreak started to spread towards Europe, they refocused their research and development resources on a project to quickly develop a fast test for Covid-19.
“Almost all of our resources have focused on Covid-19 since March. Initially, the activities concentrated on the later stages of development, validation and clinical evaluation. Since May, HiberGene has been concentrated on engagement with existing and new distributors to market and sell our product,” Séamus Gorman chief executive of HiberGene says.
Hibergene’s Covid-19 test processes patient swabs and detects positive samples typically in less than 30 minutes, with negative results confirmed within one hour. Their instruments can run in groups of one to four samples at a time and because the instrument is small and portable, banking of instruments could facilitate even a small lab to process hundreds of samples per day.
“Covid-19 has affected everyone, and many in society are especially vulnerable in the context of this disease. HiberGene is lucky enough to be in a position where we can contribute to the fight against it. The knowledge that, through Hibergene and our Covid-19 rapid test, we have the opportunity to have a direct impact in helping to protect everyone, including those most vulnerable; this is the driver.
“Innovation is essential in every aspect of this pandemic if we are to overcome this and facilitate whatever the new normal will be. Everyone needs to be innovative in terms of how we work, how we travel and how we live our lives day to day. Covid-19 has highlighted how unpredictable the future can be, and businesses have had to adapt significantly as a result. Innovation in terms of business practices, technology and our everyday life must continue throughout this pandemic to ensure a return to a positive economic position again,” Gorman says.
HiberGene is already looking to the future, past the pandemic, which has demonstrated the need for alternative perspectives and modernisation of diagnostics.
“We share the view that some elements of healthcare, and diagnostics in particular, can be taken out of the traditional settings and closer to the community and primary care. HiberGene wants to be part of that shift through existing and future innovation,” he says.
Since former lingerie shop owner Ciara Donlon came up with the idea for Theya Healthcare, her company has specialised in the creation of healing underwear, designed and scientifically proven to aid recovery post breast cancer surgery.
Theya Healthcare specialises in health wear made primarily from sustainably grown, naturally antibacterial, breathable, healing bamboo fibre. They design and manufacture a range of bras and briefs for post-operative situations but when Covid-19 took hold, all cancer surgeries and procedures and testing stopped.
“This resulted in a slowdown of business for us. We were very fortunate that as a client of Enterprise Ireland we were asked could we source PPE for the HSE and the Department of Defence, which we did, and in many respects it was this pivot that meant we didn’t have to lay any of our team off. We have not had to avail of any Government funding and could carry on with our development plans. The whole team became experts in PPE in a very short space of time,” Donlon says.
“We had all heard stories about how uncomfortable the masks were to wear for long periods of time, causing sweating, acne and in some cases bleeding behind the ears. Certain groups just can’t wear them, such as people who have autism, certain disabilities and arthritis. Add to that the fact that the disposable masks are creating a massive amount of single-use plastic in a time when our world really needs us all to stop consuming so much throwaway plastics. All this combined gave me the idea to create a reusable, sustainably produced, naturally antibacterial, breathable bamboo fibre face mask. Our mask is a unique seamless tube design that sits around the neck and does not hook on to your ears,” she adds.
They launched the mask in July and wrote to Pascal Donohoe, Minister for Finance, to seek the inclusion of PPE and particularly masks in the medical expenses refund scheme.
“I wanted to create a mask that had no added chemicals and was naturally antibacterial and was kind to the skin as well as the planet. It was very important to me that our masks were scientifically tested and certified, which they are,” she says.
“I have always been driven by empathy, it’s the reason I started Theya Healthcare in the first place – finding simple solutions for a need or want that is causing people pain or discomfort. I believe that all companies can be social enterprises and giving back to our target markets via our products and services should be at the core of what we all do.”
Theya Healthcare is working with a number of distributors worldwide to bring its sustainable mask to personnel in many sectors. This will involve branding masks for clients and offering them the masks in their brand colours.
Pre-Covid-19, Socio Local provided software and marketing services to the hospitality industry. They helped restaurants and bars market their businesses online by giving them access to their software and community team, who coordinated marketing campaigns through key digital channels to drive footfall and customer growth.
They had just begun expanding into the retail industry when Covid impacted.
“Given our hospitality focus, the impact of Covid on us and our customers was huge. Overnight we had to adapt and implement a plan to help both us and our customers. Transparency is one of our core values at Socio Local, so I briefed the team in detail on the strategy and potential outcomes,” says Stephen Malone, chief executive of Socio Local.
They implemented a three-step plan to stabilise, support and sustain, and grow.
“Our customers were very much part of our three-step plan; without their success and survival, Socio would have no future. We offered payment breaks and reduced plans to those severely impacted. It hurt our revenue but it was the right thing to do. Our customer success team worked fast to provide content on pivoting from dine-in to delivery and how to drive orders via SocioConnect, our marketing suite.
“Once we stabilised and supported our customers, we started to look at growth opportunities. Grocery retail during Covid could be seen as an essential service and in the days of lockdowns, consumers needed up to date local information from key service providers. SocioConnect uniquely positioned us to partner with many local service providers from multinational newsagent chains, to hair salons and gyms, to deliver that local message at scale. We’ve helped our customers connect to their customers at a local level,” he says.
Socio Local has had to digitise its entire sales process, which has removed barriers to entry for the company and its seen interest from some of the largest retailers in the UK as well as having conversations in both the US and Australia.
“When it came to Covid, we moved our artificial intelligence module forward in our roadmap. It creates on-brand contextualised social media posts with no human input. Since its launch, the data is showing us that our AI is outperforming human-generated posts by 107 per cent, saving both time and money for our customers, but even more importantly it enables our customers to maintain a connection with their customers at a local level which is hugely valuable to them,” he says.
Critical Healthcare manufactures and supplies medical, PPE equipment and medical devices for customers such as the National Ambulance Service, Dublin Fire Brigade and Irish Coast Guard and in the UK, NHS ambulance Trusts, and EMS providers like Polaris, Elite, Falck UK and in Europe, Falck Germany, Denmark and Spain to facilitate the delivery of emergency patient care. They do this through their own procurement software, Medlogistix.
“Critical Healthcare has been at the forefront of the fight against Covid-19 by supporting all emergency services providers across Europe. Significantly, we have had sole responsibility for ensuring that the national ambulance services in both Ireland and Denmark have remained fully operational with essential sufficient supplies during these unprecedented times,” Critical Healthcare’s Dr Anne Cusack says.
They were able to step in and support the gardaí, the Irish Prison Service and the Department of Justice with PPE, despite shortages across Europe and at home.
“Falck Europe nominated us to become their PPE partner for a further three other countries on top of Denmark, Germany, UK and Spain. It was quite an intense time as we ramped up production and supply to Poland, Sweden, and France. Most recently we have been awarded a place on the Department of Education contract to supply primary, secondary and third-level schools with equipment to ensure a safe return to school. In essence our company has almost doubled in size as have our staff numbers and we continue to recruit, which is really positive for Tullamore, where we are based,” she says.
“What we do is important. It always has been. To have responsibility for ensuring the emergency services are equipped 24/7 is not a responsibility we take lightly. With the added pressure of Covid, we are very cognisant of providing the best service we can to support frontline workers, whether it is ambulance, fire, police or teachers. They are pivotal to society and we are privileged to play our essential role in supporting them,” she says.
“Our customers drive our innovation and on a daily basis they experience unique situations, so our job is to find solutions that help them. We are certainly experiencing a unique time now. We are continuing to expand, and are about to embark on the next build of our software. We have always pushed innovation. Medlogistix, our procurement software, is proof of that,” she says.
Based in Dublin’s Digital Hub, Total Digital is a digital agency specialising in crafting digital products and experiences such as websites, mobile apps, and bespoke software that deliver results for clients. The company has been involved in the response to Covid-19 since March.
“We were approached by Patient Mpower to collaborate on a project for the remote monitoring of Covid-19 patients,” says marketing manager Manuela Savini. “The platform tracks patients’ oxygen saturation, an important indicator of the severity of Covid-19, providing real time information to healthcare teams.”
Patients record the information using a medical device, which connects to an app via Bluetooth. This also records temperature and other symptoms like breathlessness. In-app alerts and data portal red flags provide warnings if oxygen saturation falls below set thresholds, with SMS alerts for on-call monitoring staff. The data is then fed back to the hospital in real time via a secure portal.
“We helped PatientMPower design the user interface for the hospitals’ dashboard where they can access all key patient information,” Savini adds. “This enables hospitals to monitor patients with mild symptoms at home, preserving capacity and reducing the risk of infection.”
The company was approached by existing client Roqu in late May to collaborate on the development of a digital platform to support rapid Covid-19 testing. Total Digital designed and developed the Health Passport platform which combines accurate testing with advanced mobile technology.
“This was a project of national importance with really aggressive timelines – it meant a lot to everyone from the start, just knowing what was at stake and that our work could make a difference,” says Savini. “The system is designed to work with all official Covid-19 tests including lab swabs and rapid testing solutions. After being tested, people can download the app and get quick and easy access to their test results on their mobile device. This can be digitally scanned at a safe distance to allow people to go about our daily activities in a safer way.”
Surewash has been teaching hand-washing techniques to healthcare workers with healthcare facilities its primary focus to date, as it follows the World Health Organization (WHO) protocol in its training.
“Our technology combines artificial intelligence and augmented reality to offer an innovative approach to learning that shifts away from the typical classroom setting training. The training is delivered via portable kiosks or our app and includes practical training of the technique, but also has a lesson and quiz function to offer a complete solution to hand hygiene education. The system was developed to encourage self-directed learning with objective feedback, to make hand hygiene training more accessible, frequent, and convenient – subsequently helping to reduce the spread of infections,” Cecil Ryan executive chairman of Surewash says.
This year alone, there has been approximately two million sessions across their SureWash units. They are supplying to an increasing number of healthcare facilities around the world and have recently expanded into new markets such as Israel and China.
“We have also been lucky enough to enter new sectors like pharmaceutical, exhibition centres, training companies and sports institutes. Now we are focusing our efforts to help the food production and corporate sectors to create safe work environments. Our technology can be used to not only educate and train employees, but also contractors, visitors and fundamentally anyone who enters the premises,” he says.
Despite what we’ve heard in the last few months, washing hands involves more than just singing happy birthday twice.
“It’s about making sure all the surfaces of the hands are clean and the WHO technique is the best way to achieve this. Hand washing is a psychomotor skill so it is important to build muscle memory. The main issue is that it is notoriously difficult to train and studies have found that it can take up to 32 training sessions for it to become a habit. That is where we come into play and it is why we are now delivering training in multiple industries to the standard of medical professionals globally,” he says.
“Everyone perceives handwashing as such a simple task, however, even in healthcare it has proved very difficult to achieve competency. Fifty per cent of hospital acquired infections are as a result of poor hand hygiene making it one of the most essential practices performed by healthcare professionals,” Ryan says.
In response to Covid-19, Surewash released a new and improved version of its mobile app and made it available for the general public to download. It is ideal for businesses to train and educate employees in hand hygiene, as the training can be done remotely before returning to the workspace.