Santa Cruz startup pivots in a time of need: COVID-19

SANTA CRUZ — Prometheus is the mythical figure who defied Greek gods and brought fire and civilization to mere mortals. So perhaps it’s fitting that a local startup bearing his name moved at lightning-fast speed to come to the rescue of society’s new heroes.

Prometheus Fuels, a Santa Cruz company built on the revolutionary idea of creating clean-burning gasoline using only air, water and electricity, has expanded its operations to include the manufacture of an unlikely but direly needed product — personal protective equipment for the army of nurses, doctors, emergency medical technicians and others courageously battling COVID-19.

Also known as PPE, the items include N-95 masks and face shields, gloves and gowns. They’re all still in short supply in hospitals, clinics and other health care facilities caught off guard by the pandemic, putting health care workers at risk of catching the novel coronavirus.

“I remember thinking, ‘I bet there’s some way we can help out. What could I make?’” said Rob McGinnis, Prometheus’ founder and CEO. “We have a small, nimble team and the necessary machinery. We had to do it.”

Within six days of McGinnis’ decision in early March, his team had ordered supplies, reprogrammed machinery and shipped its first batch of plastic face shields to Brooklyn’s SUNY Downstate Medical Center as New York City quickly became the nation’s pandemic epicenter.

Large companies like General Motors, Ford and Palo Alto-based Tesla have received the most attention in recent weeks when they converted their production lines to make masks and ventilators, but across the country hundreds of smaller firms like Prometheus have quietly also marched their troops into battle.

Before the pandemic struck, a normal day at Prometheus mostly involved the development of a machine designed to produce clean fuel. The company uses electricity and chemistry to remove carbon dioxide from the air to create a fossil-fuel-free form of gasoline.

Because Prometheus already had established relationships with vendors who could supply the materials, it was relatively easy for the company to immediately begin producing face shields. By contrast, manufacturing N-95 masks, gowns and gloves required additional materials and expertise that were beyond the capability of the small startup.

Amanda Martinez, one of nine Prometheus employees, remembers seeing the headlines in March about New York nurses wearing garbage bags to protect themselves. “Doctors were essentially walking into battle without armor,” Martinez said.

She and her colleagues initially felt helpless. “Then suddenly we had the ability to do something — to help them right away,” Martinez said. “It was empowering.”

To get started, McGinnis turned to the website of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s face shield project. It offered nearly everything his team needed, including a list of materials to make face shields and a pattern to use for assembly.

McGinnis said the ingredients for manufacturing face shields are pretty simple: a sheet of polyethylene terephthalate (the same stuff used to make plastic soda and water bottles), a strip of foam and an elastic band.

While it’s possible to cut each sheet of plastic for the face shields by hand, one particular piece of automated equipment slashed the time it takes to a fraction of a second.

“It’s called a water jet cutter and it’s really versatile,” McGinnis said. “You essentially just load a program with the pattern you want, and it will cut pretty much any material into that shape.”

The machine was already being used at Prometheus to cut metal sheets and rubber gaskets for its fuel-making system. So the team now recalibrates the cutter as the company switches between normal production and churning out face shields.

Adam Tippie, the technical operations specialist at Prometheus, uses a computer on wheels to control the cutter as it carves out 900 plastic shields in under 20 minutes with highly pressurized water.

“We were able to pivot our daily operation pretty quickly,” Tippie said. “I’m proud of the fact that we’re not just a one-minded company.”

Once the plastic shields are cut, team members put on their gloves and begin the PPE assembly line. They separate the plastic shields by hand, rinse them off and use an employee-designed aluminum rack to dry out each shield.

A strip of elastic that serves as the securing strap is stapled along the top of the shield. Then a thin strip of foam with an adhesive on one side is fastened to the plastic.

Since its first shipment in late March, Prometheus has manufactured more than 3,100 face shields. The team uses an email system on the University of Wisconsin project’s website that allows the company to send the shields to where they’re needed most. So far, the startup has shipped shields to dozens of medical facilities across the country — from the Bronx and Brooklyn to Oakland and Los Angeles.

The team is also helping ease the stress of the PPE shortage at a local level. At Hearts & Hands, a skilled nursing facility in Live Oak in north Santa Cruz County, the PPE supply was stolen in the early days of the pandemic, and emergency shipments seemed to be taking forever.

So when Sandi Feola, a Hearts & Hands nurse, cried out for help on Facebook, Prometheus came through with 100 face shields. “I was absolutely crying when I read Rob’s email,” Feola recalled. She said she offered to pay McGinnis, but he told her he wanted it to be a gift.

Prometheus has been charging most of its new customers what the materials cost to produce each shield — $3. The time spent by the company’s employees to assemble and ship the shields is donated.

McGinnis studied theater and philosophy at Cabrillo College and Yale,  where he later earned a Ph.D. in environmental engineering. His idea for Prometheus was funded last year by the Silicon Valley incubator Y Combinator.

His plan is to continue making face shields for as long as they’re needed.

The reactions to his team’s resourcefulness and hard work have been heartwarming. One Chicago health care clinic recently sent McGinnis a picture of some of their staff wearing Prometheus’ face shields.

“They look really happy,” McGinnis said. “It’s hard to tell because of the masks, but I think all of us are learning to identify someone behind a mask now.”

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Author: Ashleigh Papp, Correspondent

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