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SFU alumni contributing to the fight against COVID-19

April 28, 2020
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Eugene Suyu, co-founder and CEO of 3D printing firm Tinkerine, is a proud Simon Fraser University alumnus who is helping to fight COVID-19. The company has produced thousands of face shields, which guard against the transmission of the deadly novel coronavirus.

“Since we have the ability, we should be using our strengths to benefit society and take some social responsibility,” says Suyu, who graduated from SFU’s School of Interactive Arts and Technology (SIAT).

The team started producing about 240 face shields a day but after some considerable retooling of the business they were able to increase production to 1,000 face shields per day. Tinkerine now has capacity to produce 20,000 face shields per week.

The company’s clientele is all frontline essential workers from family physicians, long-term care facilities, pharmaceutical storefronts bundled with grocery stores to government and provinces across Canada. The team has received an outpouring of gratitude from the frontline essential workers. “They've let us know that the face shields provide both comfort and safety that other goggles alone don't provide,” says Suyu.

The team has also received positive feedback from the general public and community. “They are really happy to know that there is a B.C. company stepping up to manufacture face shields locally.”

Suyu first became interested in 3D printing when he was a student at SFU. “I had taken a course with SIAT instructor Ken Zupan, who introduced us to 3D printing and encouraged us to make something, and from the moment I did, I wanted one,” recalls Suyu.

A 3D printer came with a hefty price tag, so he and a group of SIAT students decided to build their own. Their efforts resulted in the creation of Tinkerine. “We didn’t start off aiming to go into business," Suyu recalls. “We were keenly interested in applying everything we learned at school to successfully build a 3D printer, that was our end goal, but it just grew from there.”

Innovation is needed in times of crisis

Sarah Lubik, executive director of the Charles Chang Institute for Entrepreneurship, says innovation-based small businesses like Tinkerine are well-suited for a time like this because they are nimble and can adapt their capabilities to changing needs.

She points to a 2015 Deloitte study which highlights that most Canadian companies are not prepared for a significant disruption. No matter what type of disruption they face, companies need to be adaptable to survive and thrive in our ever-changing world.

“It’s a significant part of why we are so focused at SFU on amplifying the entrepreneurial mindset: the ability to be empathetic, confident, resilient and to create opportunities in the face of change,” she says.

How companies can become more innovative

Lubik says companies can become more adaptable by:

1. Stepping back, critically assessing what they think the next three months, six months, year might look like for them, their customers and their communities

2. Building resilience into their business model by proactively and honestly identifying their weaknesses and know which strengths can be doubled down or redeployed in new ways or towards new opportunities and emerging needs.

3. Developing an entrepreneurial mindset. This means fostering a company culture that focusing on creativity, collaboration, confidence and tolerance of ambiguity. Then, involving the team in the processes of problem solving and becoming more versatile.

She says business leaders, students and managers can view this pandemic as a lesson that we can use to become more entrepreneurial throughout Canadian society.

“This pandemic may spur the businesses that survive to be more future-focused, to take more proactive steps to create resilient business models and adaptive strategies,” says Lubik.

Suyu agrees that businesses should incorporate adaptability, innovation and desire to create a positive impact on the world into their mission statement.

“In moments of crisis like what we are facing today, it’s important to see where the company's strengths are, move accordingly and let that process guide where you go,” he says. “Sometimes the question can be simply, ‘how can we help?’”