Manufacturing COVID-19 PPE using sustainable plastics: adapting to the market need

Responding to the pandemic

Transcend Packaging is a relatively new company, founded in 2017 and based in Ystrad Mynach, between Cardiff and the Brecon Beacons. It manufactures sustainable alternatives to single-use plastics for the hospitality and food production sectors. When COVID-19 hit in April 2020, the company found its normal markets dramatically reduced, and switched to making personal protective equipment (PPE), following a plea from the Welsh Government.

Lorenzo Angelucci, CEO, realised that they had the capability to make face shields at speed, and his team began developing a version that was in keeping with the firm’s environmental ethos. Lorenzo says he felt it was important to be part of the response to the pandemic. ‘The call from the Welsh First Minister was instrumental. It helped crystalise that businesses needed to really focus on what they could to do to make a unique contribution in a unique situation.’

While the news headlines were around PPE shortages for frontline hospital workers, Lorenzo quickly realised the time it would take to create a clinical-grade product would be prohibitive. Instead they focused on a simpler, inexpensive solution that could meet anticipated needs in other areas, for instance lower-risk healthcare staff, key workers, and – looking forward – the restaurants and businesses whose staff would require protection when their businesses reopened.

A recyclable face shield

The company identified a niche in the market for a product that was inexpensive, effective, and lightweight, and created an alternative face shield that could be easily recycled.

The face shield didn’t need to be a highly-engineered and certified surgical-grade version, but it did need to meet the requirements of the healthcare sector, which was new to them. The company worked closely with Life Sciences Hub Wales, who are part of the Accelerated Access Collaborative NHS Innovation Service, to ensure that their product met the relevant certification requirements.

‘The support from Life Sciences Hub Wales was invaluable,’ says Lorenzo. ‘They initially helped us to work with the NHS and the Welsh government to understand the need and to shape the direction of the product. They were also instrumental in helping us to acquire CE marking, which certifies they are fit for purpose.’

Sustainability built-in

The company was initially able to draw on its wealth of internal expertise, and existing networks with innovators, before looking outside the business for additional advice and connections.

Lorenzo says there was also an advantage to being younger company which is naturally more entrepreneurial. ‘If you look at the way sustainable packaging has been developing so rapidly across Europe, we’re now its largest producer of paper straws, whereas three years ago there was nothing. Being able to understand a market, and pivot quickly to meet its requirements, is what has translated well to our work in the PPE space.’

Throughout the first year of the pandemic, the company was able to expand its production and took on more staff, doubling the permanent workforce in just four months. In total, they have supplied over 15 million masks to the NHS and UK Department of Health and Social Care since April 2020, and are now working with the US healthcare system.

Lessons learned

‘Having a good solution that can potentially become a great solution is a very strong position to be in. A key component is to do your research and try to understand the market, rather than pursue your version of perfection.’

The company focused its efforts on meeting the need for a simple, sustainable and low-cost product. Instead of striving for the perfect face shield, they developed a product that could be deployed quickly, and did what was necessary. Lorenzo believes innovators should follow this example and realise that improvement is often incremental.

The company’s creative philosophy is all about pace: removing barriers and applying leverage to create velocity and get to market quickly. Barriers can be processes that need streamlining to make them as straightforward and efficient as possible; leverage can be applied by connecting with partners and networks who have the knowledge you need, in this case Life Sciences Hub Wales.

Lorenzo is also proud of the impact Transcend has been able to have in its community.

‘The ability to create and preserve jobs is extremely important in the Welsh valleys. It’s a place that is in transition, and where innovative firms can thrive. We’ve received outstanding support from the Welsh government and have shared goals: creating products with export potential, creating jobs, and developing a centre of excellence for sustainability. Our collective response to the pandemic has become a source of pride for the workforce and the local community, and its been immensely rewarding to be part of it.’

Key Takeaways