Shortly after Massachusetts state officials asked all non-essential businesses to close in mid-March, FLEXcon Corp. in Spencer, Mass., received a call from a local nurse asking what the company could make to help address the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE).
Led by chairman Neil McDonough, a WPI trustee and longtime supporter of WPI, FLEXcon coats and laminates film materials—multi-layer structures, McDonough explains, most of which are sold in rolls and sheets that are printed as labels. Products made by FLEXcon are everywhere and probably in your home right now: in labels on beverage and shampoo bottles, graphics on the sides of buses, and screen protectors on smartphones. The company makes labels on cars that need to stand up to harsh environments, unit price and bar code labels on supermarket shelves, those metallic-like labels on computers—even labels on cell phone batteries that change color when submerged in water (proof to the manufacturer that a warranty should be voided).
These film labels, McDonough adds, also serve essential industries—as pharmaceutical syringe and vial labels, medical device labels, skin contact adhesives that hold insulin pumps to the body, as just a few examples.
When FLEXcon received the call about addressing PPE needs, the company’s most innovative, out-of-the-box business unit took the lead. They brainstormed and decided to try making a minimally viable product, a face shield, that could scale quickly and sell at a low cost, McDonough says. In 36 hours, they delivered prototypes to a local hospital, received immediate feedback, and redesigned. Over one weekend, the team worked with operations in the 24/7 facility to deliver thousands of version two of the face shield on that Monday.
In two weeks, the company made 60,000 face shields and has donated 30,000 to healthcare facilities across Massachusetts and as far west as California.
“Many of our employees have been proud to give packets of face shields to relatives in healthcare who were concerned about having enough PPE during this crisis,” says McDonough, adding that version three is now in production. “We are leaning out our process to be able to make and sell 500,000 this month and 1 million in May and beyond while meeting our target price of less than $1 per face shield. We are all proud of our team response to the critical need for PPE for healthcare workers.”
The McDonough family name is familiar to many in the WPI community. Neil McDonough is a friend to the university and longtime generous supporter of WPI students and faculty. The McDonough Maker Space in the Foisie Innovation Studio is named for his father, the late Myles McDonough, who also served WPI as a trustee. The McDonough Maker Space recognizes the generous philanthropy of Neil and his mother Jean McDonough, and honors Myles McDonough’s service and commitment to WPI and his entrepreneurial spirit.
Myles McDonough was a chemist who gave up a job with a small adhesives company to start his own company in an old ambulance garage not far from FLEXcon’s current Spencer headquarters. With no bank loans or venture capital and using parts from old washing machines to make equipment, he started the business that became FLEXcon.
Although neither he nor his father graduated from WPI, McDonough says they have always valued their connection to and involvement with the university.
“FLEXcon is a material science company, and the thought process engineers and scientists bring to our work we have found to be valuable and rare. WPI graduates bring an entrepreneurial excitement to our company and have become leaders who take responsibility for their teams and their work.”
Select Media Coverage:
Worcester Business Journal: https://www.wbjournal.com/article/flexcon-donates-hazmat-suits-protective-shields-to-umass-memorial
Worcester Telegram & Gazette: https://www.telegram.com/news/20200325/umass-memorial-opens-donations-center-flexcon-contributes