Overwhelmed by the corona pandemic and due to a severe shortage of medical supplies such as face masks, isolation gowns and splash goggles, the government and the health sector have purchased protective gear from whoever sold them. The call for sustainable local products – and therefore independence – was resounding. But competing with foreign prices and bringing sustainable products to the market is quite a challenge, as Folkert Huysinga, project manager for sustainable innovation at Eindhoven Engine knows.
Jos van Mijl, owner of the Eco Textieldruk screen-to-textile printing company, mentioned earlier in this article that he purchased a machine that can produce over a hundred medical masks per minute. The machine has been inactive for months due to foreign competition.
At the start of the pandemic, Huysinga was production team leader at the Landelijk Consortium Hulpmiddelen (Dutch National Aid Consortium – LCH). He has seen many initiatives like that of Van Mijl. “Many people and businesses have invested time, money and effort since March 2020. The government has also provided assistance in this regard. It is a shame that initiatives like this threaten to run out of steam. Now is the time to move forward and ensure innovation in our own country for the long term. “
As a follow-up to initiatives such as that of Van Mijl, the Dutch Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sports, in cooperation with the Dutch Agency for Enterprises, SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) competitions are organized. with the aim of creating new suppliers for the Netherlands. market for an innovative product or service.
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Reusable isolation gowns and durable mouth-nose masks
When the LCH was put in place at the start of the pandemic, it was tasked with speeding up the procurement, distribution and manufacture of medical supplies in record time. Maarten Steinbuch, Director of Eindhoven Engine, supported LCH in this endeavor. As a result of this collaboration, Huysinga, Steinbuch and Jaap Lombaerts, Director of Knowledge Management at the Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research (TNO), decided to enter Eindhoven Engine in two SBIR competitions: for medical masks nose / mouth and for isolation gowns. .
Huysinga is the project leader and the two initiatives are in the second round. This means that the government is making money available for further research, the purchase of materials and the production of the first models. “This is the last phase of funding, after which we should be able to stand on our own feet,” says Huysinga.
Eindhoven Engine, the innovation accelerator at the Eindhoven University of Technology (TU / e) campus, is part of a consortium for both competitions. According to Huysinga, its strength lies in its cooperation with knowledge institutes, manufacturing companies, the health sector and the government. “We are looking at the whole chain to see how things can be improved and made more sustainable. In terms of material use and production, but also in terms of waste treatment, safety and wearing comfort. We cannot do it alone; the strength of Eindhoven Engine lies in the fact that we seek cooperation with specialized parties.
As is the case with Van Mijl, foreign competition is one of the main challenges for the consortia of which Eindhoven Engine is a part. “After all, labor in China is much cheaper; we just can’t compete with that, ”says Huysinga.
Nonetheless, Huysinga is confident in achieving a sustainable Dutch production line for medical protective equipment: “No matter how low the cost of supplies from overseas, it is not viable to bring everything in so. far. Moreover, during this crisis we have also seen that something as simple as a shortage of face masks or isolation gowns can cripple the entire healthcare system. It is therefore very important to become less dependent. We can also see opportunities for new innovations in domestic production. “
Independence, innovation and a better knowledge of the quality of protective equipment are therefore major advantages for manufacturing on Dutch soil. In addition, although hospitals themselves buy medical equipment, the government is nevertheless ultimately responsible for providing a sustainable alternative.
Automation, knowledge and expertise
Huysinga regularly sits at the table of the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sports, RVO, procurement organizations and hospitals. “Today, a lot of energy is invested in sustainable Dutch production, for example through the SBIR competitions. The key question is always: how do we ensure that the sustainable masks we produce here in the Netherlands are not 20% more expensive than the masks from China? I think we can come a long way with a high degree of automation, knowledge and expertise, as long as all parties stay on board and have the courage to look beyond cost price. “
In any case, Huysinga hopes that the sustainable alternatives will have a good chance of success. It seems “dramatic” to him if later, after all the energy and time that he and others have invested, he is told: we are not going to do it, it is too expensive. “It would be shortsighted. Everyone – government, procurement organizations and producers – should dare to go for a long term solution instead of a quick win. “
Huysinga describes his task as project manager for sustainable medical supplies as a “complicated challenge”. The Dutch policy on purchasing medical supplies is a hot topic, which means that everything Huysinga does is put under the microscope. “It makes him interesting, but also very difficult. “
In March 2020, everyone, including businesses, was ready to come together. Now everyone is tempted to go back to their own corner, when we can only compete with other countries if we start to think in terms of Netherlands Ltd. I have seen excellent cooperative initiatives emerge from this perspective.
Huysinga supports Van Mijl’s advocacy for a Dutch network of safe and sustainable medical masks. He is convinced that it can be done, but it will be difficult no matter how. Huysinga sees the “one for all and all for one” spirit that prevailed at the start of the pandemic slowly dissipating. “In March 2020, everyone, including businesses, wanted to tackle together. But now everyone is tempted to retreat to their own little corner. While we can only compete with other countries if we start to think in terms of Netherlands Ltd. With this in mind, I have seen excellent cooperative initiatives emerge from this perspective. We need to think less in terms of ego and more in terms of ecosystem interests.
If Eindhoven Engine’s durable nasal and mouth masks come to fruition, Van Mijl may well need to dust off his machine. Huysinga: “If we manage to offer a sustainable alternative to the market, we will also have to be able to develop it and see which partners we can do it with.