Coquitlam textiles manufacturer Jason Zanatta began producing surgical masks Tuesday afternoon on a factory floor that produces pet beds, and he's "cautiously optimistic" he could soon secure a deal to produce N95 respirators.
Novo Textiles is shifting from pillow production to cope with the pandemic and help fill a gaping hole in Canada's medical supplies.
Zanatta's 15-employee company is one of the first Canadian companies to switch production and start turning out surgical masks.
According to Health Canada, Novo is one of the 5,000 companies that answered Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's call to produce protective gear for front-line hospital workers. On Tuesday, Trudeau called this overwhelming response "truly inspiring" and confirmed that the federal government is helping industry retool and reorganize to change production.
"I started realizing that this virus was going to be with us for quite some time and I needed to pivot my business hard to stay relevant," said Zanatta.
Novo already has a licence to produce medical-grade textiles and previously produced hospital pillows.
Now, Zanatta said he has invested $200,000 for the first two-ton machine that he set up over the past few days to start churning out regular surgical masks.
He says that he has another $400,000 machine on hold in China that can make N95 respirators. It's secured with a deposit until agreements can be firmed up.
Zanatta said that he's in negotiations with the province to help him secure the machine that could — in a perfect scenario — start turning them out within four to six weeks.
"We may end up being the first to do N95 masks in Canada if we can get this deal done," said Zanatta.
Zanatta's first machine cleared customs on Sunday, and he's spent three days setting it up using schematics and figuring out the control board with WeChat videos and Google translate.
He predicts he will be producing 100,000 surgical masks per day within a week.
Zanatta admits the idea was born of desperation as he faced losing his textile manufacturing factory, when people stopped buying cushions and pet beds in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis.
"We had to take a hard look at what we could offer to help in the fight against the COVID-19 virus and keep the factory running," he said in an interview Tuesday.
The father of two boys, seven and 10 years, is immunocompromised as he has Crohn's disease himself. He saw retooling during the coronavirus crisis as both an opportunity to save his business and help Canada get around medical supply chain pressures.
So, he says he moved fast to secure the automated machinery from China to turn production of dog beds and hospital pillows into surgical mask-making at his 20,000-square-foot factory.
"I'm excited to just work through any hiccups that might come and scale up as soon as possible and as safely as possible, so I can get the orders out to the customers that are desperately asking for them."
He already has orders for regular surgical masks with the province, care homes and Downtown Eastside organizations.
"My sons have both offered to come help," said Zanatta, but for now he says he's keeping the boys safe at home, proud of their parents but missing soccer.