The LIGHTS Regional Innovation Network, a program supported by Ohio University’s Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs, is helping local entrepreneurs, startups and small businesses adapt to a digital workplace and manufacture personal protective equipment during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Funded by the Appalachian Regional Commission, Leveraging Innovation Gateways and Hubs Toward Sustainability program (LIGHTS), assists individuals and companies through product development, business coaching and innovation gateways.
LIGHTS is using teleconferencing to advise clients and partners across a 26-county region regarding product-focused activities, incorporating important topics surrounding remote-work, online group productivity and the identification and implementation of digital tools in the age of COVID-19.
While a large percentage of small businesses across the country rely on face-to-face commercial transaction, businesses need to adapt to remote tools and processes in a pandemic, said LIGHTS Associate Director Nathaniel Berger.
“Planning for a significant digital and online presence has become critical as COVID-19 is causing a massive change in consumer behavior and product interest,” Berger said. “Everyone is encouraged to reach out to us, even those who have never worked with us before. We will provide product and business development expertise, as well as training and resources for digital adaptation.”
Berger recommends companies make use of their local business support organizations, such as LIGHTS, to equip themselves with the support they need in this moment, thus ensuring those business’ survival during and after the pandemic.
“Now is an opportune moment to meet new and existing customer demands, while having an opportunity for social impact,” Berger said.
Several of LIGHTS’ partners are making a social impact through the manufacturing of personal protective equipment for their local and state communities. Building Bridges to Careers (BB2C) in Marietta, Ohio, also sponsored by the Voinovich School and Social Enterprise Ecosystem (SEE) Appalachia program, announced in early April that it is using its makerspace to manufacture reusable face shields, including elastic straps, for area hospital and emergency medical services providers.
“Throughout the course of this pandemic, many stories have emerged that reiterate the importance of community by highlighting individuals, organizations, and businesses that have stepped up and worked together in spite of obvious obstacles,” Jared Wittekind, BB2C Makerspace Coordinator, said in a recent blog post. “These stories serve not only as hope in an otherwise difficult time, but as a reminder that strong connections between innovative makers and businesses are paramount.”
Another partner, the Robert C. Byrd Institute (RCBI) at Marshall University, is creating masks and shields. The West Virginia Army National Guard in Charleston is assembling the personal protective equipment, which is then distributed to health care workers and first responders across the state.
“As one of the gateways for the LIGHTS network, RCBI is leveraging its 3D printing and rapid design technologies to assist other gateways and hubs from across the region in effective and efficient responses to the production of personal protective equipment,” said Bill Woodrum, director of entrepreneurship for the Robert C. Byrd Institute. “To date, RCBI has produced a few hundred N95 masks and protective headgear/face shields and participated on several calls and email interactions with business owners, educators and other interested individuals from across the LIGHTS region.”
The RCBI released a video that demonstrates its process of producing the PPE (wvmakes.com).
LIGHTS has served as a support organization for these partners, sharing new 3D printable designs and providing information about how additive manufacturing can be used for face mask and shield production, Berger said.
“We are putting a meaningful amount of time toward supporting our partners’ activities for the collective good, leveraging our network’s knowledge of the applications of our joint makerspace tooling,” he said.
Despite the challenges businesses may be facing, Berger advises partners and clients to focus on short- and long-term strategic planning, especially identifying potential opportunities for future improvement.
“As many employees are asked to stay home and the workforce moves remote, now is the time to look at a business’s past performance and update strategies,” Berger said. “Today’s challenges require us all to revisit outdated business plans and value offerings and to adjust business activities to match today's demanding realities.”
LIGHTS plays a significant role toward product-focused business development in the region, and serves as a partner in the future community and economic development recovery along with other Voinovich School programs, such as SEE.
“SEE and its partners in philanthropy and impact investment believe that the social sector will play a vital role in our region’s pandemic recovery period,” said Faith Knutsen, director of social innovation and entrepreneurship at the Voinovich School.