Facing the COVID-19 front
The rapid spread of COVID-19 took the world by storm, and Israeli startup Sonovia responded to the challenge by producing the first anti-microbial reusable face masks, SonoMasks. Sonovia is a great example of the value and support that startups provide in the face of crises. Jason Migdal, R&D Strategist at Sonovia, discussed with me how they were able to adapt their proprietary textile manufacturing process and forge forward within a matter of weeks.
Mary Letey: Given the news of the impending threat of the pandemic late last year, walk me through your response at Sonovia. How did you begin the process of developing a new product under such time constraints?
Jason Migdal: We started right at the beginning of the year when we saw the reports coming in from China saying the novel coronavirus was spreading. We immediately thought that our pilot industrial textiles, which are lab-verified to be antimicrobial, could be worked into an anti-viral solution. The process started with our R&D team deep-diving into research and discovering that a zinc-oxide formulation, which is a core facet of our fabric, has been documented to be an antiviral agent against viruses such as herpes and influenza.
ML: How did you adapt your process to produce something suitable for COVID-19?
JM: We decided to start producing masks in a short period of time. Israel had already started enforcing labour restrictions, but we were able to provide working opportunities to people who had lost their jobs as seamstresses and dressmakers. We immediately shipped over all of our fabrics from our manufacturing partner in Germany, which was fortunately done quite quickly before the cargo restrictions were in place. We were able to immediately begin sewing, cutting and creating prototypes. These were initially donated to medical workers and non-profits because we wanted to help those in need who couldn’t continue buying face masks and throwing them away. Now there are thousands of different fabric masks, but three months ago, we were way ahead of the game with washable and reusable face masks. Our initial users were really receptive to this technology. Remember, as a startup, media and good press are our biggest allies since we have a limited budget and a limited audience reach.
JM: To condense things, I’m glad we simply took the initiative to produce a product even though we didn’t have all of our T’s crossed in terms of test results. We later submitted our samples to China for testing and it took a very long time to get those approved. That said, the publicity we got from making the masks in a short time brought people to us who wanted to purchase the masks. After we saw this interest, we decided to market this product to the FDA as a reusable textile mask and sell it commercially as a non-medical device. We found a shipping agreement, which was unique for us in an environment where lots of things weren’t being allowed out of Israel.
JM: Another key undertaking to make sure the rollout was a success was our dedicated customer support network, where we provided 24-hour service, for which we have a 5-star response rate. This is crucial for a small business establishing trust with customers. Running this support platform around the clock proved to be a vital early set of market analysis, showing that most of our customers were in the USA and that we needed to engage more heavily with this time zone. Additionally, in order to provide the best service to customers, we rapidly developed our website to include tech and media updates and a dedicated online SonoMask shop. In fact, due to the renowned success of this online shop, Amazon directly asked us to be a registered brand with them, which is very rare for mask-related products.
ML: What was something invaluable, other than your previous intellectual property, that set you up well to undertake this initiative?
JM: It was very important that we had our chemistry production team in-house, along with our business development team. Our work can be very chaotic but having everyone in the same place at once means that the team can work on solutions faster because we can talk directly between our employees.
ML: How do you see that internal company composition changing as you continue to grow?
JM: The fact that we’re producing the masks ourselves is actually against our general business model, but it was something we needed to do in order to adapt to the situation. The sales from the masks will enable us to reach the market quicker in terms of our end goals of creating machinery and formulations in a dedicated chemical plant for large brands who are creating garments. Certain large household clothing brands are interested in us because of the chemical “impregnation” of fabric that we do. We can produce a highly washable and durable fabric without any kind of binders, so a product can be made from our fabric process that keeps the same anti-odour, anti-stain, or anti-viral properties long after any competitors’ formulation.
ML: That interest must be really exciting, congratulations! What has been your experience with fundraising?
JM: While we were developing and producing the masks, at the same time we were applying for an EU grant under Horizon 2021 for anti-viral solutions. Although we weren’t successful with the grant, we’re motivated to resubmit our application in a few months. We’ve previously received a sustainable grant from the UK last year, again under Horizon 2021, for €2.4 million and this is really what has enabled us to be in the position to produce our fabrics and formulations without any previous costumers. We are in the middle of an investment round of €5 million through private placement. The investors can see a living and working solution made by a startup that has generated a lot of sales and is already in a positive cash flow balance. If we hadn’t embarked on the mask undertaking, we would still be in the R&D phase and things would be less impressive. Instead, we are already planning our IPO for the end of the year!
ML: Impressive! What final advice would you give to entrepreneurs who wanted to respond to a crisis as quickly as possible with a product or entrepreneurial solution?
JM: Do your background research. Analyse your idea and see how it’s supported by the scientific community. If you can reach out to academics, they’re the ones who will actually be able to inform you if your idea will have any benefit to the public as a pandemic response.
JM: More generally, you have to persevere through the process of promoting your product in a difficult time, and make sure you’re speaking to as many media outlets as you can, which will enable you to have a platform for projecting your technology. It’s also crucial to listen to what your early customers are saying when you’re designing a product. You need that guidance and you have to incorporate that feedback as soon as possible.
— Written by Mary Letey
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