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This startup employee went from marketing lights to sourcing PPE for front-liners

As soon as the outbreak hit, Toronto-based Nanoleaf tapped its international supply chain to join the fight against COVID-19.

This startup employee went from marketing lights to sourcing PPE for front-liners

Three months ago, Paul Austin-Menear knew absolutely nothing about viruses or pandemics or hospitals or the importance of personal protective equipment. As director of digital strategy at Nanoleaf, he spent his workdays leading e-commerce initiatives — promoting and selling the startup’s line of smart LED lights. Then the COVID-19 emergency turned Austin-Menear’s life and job upside-down, forcing him to shift from marketing to sourcing and distributing medical-grade masks to North America’s front-liners. “Since Nanoleaf joined the coronavirus fight, I’ve never been so motivated by purpose,” he says.

To date, Austin-Menear and his team have delivered about one million masks to healthcare professionals, and another 500,000 to workers in essential industries. And while Nanoleaf is still selling lights, the company now plans to sell non-medical masks to the general public as well, with any profits being donated to healthcare organizations and at-risk communities.

Through this whirlwind journey, Austin-Menear has been in a constant state of shock and inspiration. Here’s how it went down, in his own words.

One day I was worrying about my co-workers abroad, the next I was worrying about the person next to me.

“Nanoleaf is an international company, with our colleagues, partners, vendors and customers all across the globe. So, back in February, everyone at our Toronto headquarters was watching the news with great concern. The transition into lockdown was quite worrying. In early March, our office in Paris closed first. Two days later, the entire company moved to remote work. I’m not sure I understood the severity of the situation at the time. Today, it’s just another fact of life.”

I was so proud that we were pivoting. Then the terror sunk in.

“By the third week of March, it was decided collectively: Nanoleaf would shift its efforts to sourcing and buying masks for front-liners. At the time, the situation was grim — doctors and nurses across North America were fearing healthcare-system collapse. My first reaction was, ‘This is amazing! We have a humanitarian crisis, therefore it’s our responsibility to help.’ Then I got scared. We had to buy all of these products up-front without credits because demand was so high. No one in Toronto could travel to the factories and make inspections. Guidelines and rules were changing by the day. Our team in China got right to work, and they became experts at vetting supplies and overseeing production. We were in constant communication. We were galvanized.”

‘We’re getting our PPE from a startup that makes lights?!’

“That was a common (and valid) refrain from front-liners. A big part of my job was to ease their minds. We had sourcing and testing processes that very closely mirrored international medical standards. It helped, too, that Tom Rodinger, our co-founder and CTO, is a PhD in molecular biology. Our bench was deep, and so was our supply chain. Most importantly, we were sourcing and distributing all this PPE at-cost, without markup or margin. Once people understood all that, they were quick to support us.”

I haven’t cried like this since I was a teenager.

“Every day was exhilarating; a rollercoaster. I was hitting the phones hard. If there was a hospital I hadn’t spoken to, I’d call their switchboard, and immediately be connected to the right person, because people were dying. I was also building our network of volunteers: friends, family — anyone. When the day was over, I’d take three steps into my living room and start weeping. The stress and aggravation were very hard on my family. But I’m proud of the work we’ve done. And I have no right to complain. I have my health, I’m still employed, and I love my job.”

This has been an invaluable experience for our employees.

“Shifting our business wasn’t as hard as you might think, because we’ve always hired people that are adaptable, people that like being challenged. For me, if I see that an applicant has experience as a cook, or pilot, or taxi driver — I gravitate to them. And we only hire people that believe in our triple-bottom-line mission. Nanoleaf has about 80 employees globally. And I really think this pandemic brought us all together.”

Check out our special COVID-19 edition of the MaRS magazine and never miss a story.