Early last spring, as coronavirus started its march across the globe, Mario Sanchez, a Costa Rican pharmacist and entrepreneur, was asked by a potential client to procure medical grade masks to protect health workers against the virus. Mario, who has expertise in drug manufacturing, logistics, and medical shortages, thought it would be a simple transaction. “Instead,” he says, “it was like chasing a ghost.”
Mario traveled to the U.S., the Netherlands, Germany, Poland and Greece, pursuing sketchy leads and tips that fizzled. It was in Berlin, standing in front of a pharmacy with a sign on the door that read “No masks, no sanitizer,” when he finally accepted defeat. “If these people, in this economic and cultural center, have a shortage of masks” Mario realized, “then there are no masks available.”
Mario returned to Costa Rica three days before the borders closed. He had no masks, but he did have a plan: He would apply his expertise in manufacturing and the medical field to start producing masks for Costa Rica.
First, he needed a factory. Mario’s parents run a small hotel, which stood empty due to Covid-19. Mario transformed it into a manufacturing facility--doing repairs and installing air conditioning and dehumidification systems. Mario made an initial run of polyester masks in mid-March. These community masks offer protection in day-to-day settings but aren’t fit for medical use. Mario knew that health professionals desperately needed medical-grade masks. But finding out how to make masks meeting that criteria was daunting. Mario searched through patents, but reverse-engineering these designs would have required research, expertise and materials that he didn’t have, not to mention a great deal of time and money.
By chance, in May, Mario heard a news report about a new venture, the UN Technology Bank’s Tech Access Partnership, which aims to strengthen developing countries’ response to Covid-19 and increase access to lifesaving health technologies. The Tech Access Partnership acts as a matchmaker between local manufacturers, entrepreneurs and other technology seekers in developing countries and global innovators, universities and others who make their intellectual property available in order to serve the common good.
In trying to procure and then manufacture masks, Mario had been burned by a number of unscrupulous parties—an experience he describes as being “in the wilderness”. The idea of working with a reputable, good-faith actor, the UN, felt much less risky. He decided it couldn’t hurt to get in touch.
As it happened, the Tech Access Partnership’s repository of technologies included a nanofiber filtration membrane designed to be used in medical-grade masks. It was developed by a Turkish company MEMSIS, that specializes in membrane systems used in water filtration and treatment.
The Tech Access Partnership convened meetings between Mario and MEMSIS, and helped broker an agreement for Mario to use the membranes, which several Turkish companies are also using to make medical-grade masks.
Mario says working with the Tech Access Partnership has had a number of advantages. First, he has been able to access the technology and intellectual property that would have cost a huge amount of time and money to develop otherwise.
The partnership has also reduced financial risk and barriers for Mario, who is operating on a shoestring. Before working with MEMSIS, Mario had tried to buy materials from companies that refused to deal with him unless he placed a large order. But MEMSIS has agreed to sell him small amounts of its membrane during this start-up phase. This means Mario doesn’t have to spend time raising large amounts of money to get started. “That gives us the opportunity to go fast and do things well,” Mario says.
In fact, three months after he first learned about the Tech Access Partnership, Mario made his first sample batch of masks using MEMSIS’s membrane. These prototypes were tested and found to meet the filtration requirements for medical grade masks. In September, Mario received his permits from the Costa Rican government allowing him to manufacture medical grade masks.
Now, Mario’s factory is gearing up to make its first batch of 5,000 masks. Mario intends to test the market with these masks and also improve his design—he’s enlisting the help of Costa Rican nurses to give him feedback on the masks so he can tweak them, if necessary, before expanding production.
MEMSIS’s leaders, Recep Kaya and Türker Türken, said in a joint statement said that it is “gratifying” to see Mario nearing production, and stressed the importance of countries moving toward meeting their own needs instead of relying on imports.
“Especially in times of pandemic, when travel and transfer between countries are difficult, the self-sufficiency of a country becomes much more important,” they said.
Kaya and Türken also encouraged other researchers and innovators to collaborate with the Tech Access Partnership in order to disseminate their knowledge and technology and contribute to the greater good. “As we have learned from this pandemic, the problem at one end of the world can become the whole world’s problem when the time comes,” they said.
Of course, there have been challenges—this fall, supply chains were disrupted in Costa Rica, which caused manufacturing delays for Mario. MEMSIS also had quickly ramp up production of its membranes due to a spike in demand. And, a pandemic is an extremely challenging time to start a new venture as treatment and prevention protocols have evolved quickly.
Joshua Setipa, Managing Director of the UN Technology Bank, said the collaboration between Mario and MEMSIS shows that the technology transfer model works, even in trying times.
“The successful partnership between Dr. Mario Sanchez and MEMSIS that was facilitated through the Tech Access Partnership is a clear demonstration of the potential for technology transfer to boost the capacity of least developed countries to manufacture the critically important medical equipment in their fight against Covid-19 and other health emergencies,” he said.
For his part, Mario has big hopes—he is interested in entering the U.S. market, eventually, and also working with MEMSIS to develop ways that the masks and other PPEs which can be reused—perhaps by washing them with ethanol—that would help cut down on the problem of medical waste.
As the second wave of the pandemic gathers force—and health professionals continue to face critical shortages of personal protective equipment—Mario says making masks is crucial to the security and self-sufficiency of Central America and the Caribbean.
“We talk about food security and national security,” he says. “This is a similar issue. We need to be able to make masks. No region can be without supplies.”
The Tech Access Partnership is a joint collaboration between The UN Technology Bank, UNDP, UNCTAD and WHO