On a normal day, Bailey Power Plant is a bustling, mixed-use building, filled with researchers, intellectual property experts, entrepreneurs and inventors, working just a few floors up from a pizzeria, a brewery and a fitness studio.
But for the last five weeks, the building has sat mostly empty. On the fifth floor, normally a space where the latest healthcare innovations are being ideating and developed, the most distinct noise lately has been the whir of a sewing machine.
That’s because this redeveloped building—which once used coal to convert steam into electricity—has been converted into a makeshift mask prototype facility.
Everywhere, health care professionals are scrambling to secure personal protective equipment (PPE) for those on the frontlines. It’s no different in Winston-Salem, home to an academic medical system in Wake Forest Baptist Health as well as Novant Health.
And with states, communities and the entire country working to figure out the best approach to opening back up the country, the need for a mask on every face has become a reality.
This is a story of how an idea sparked a collaboration that fueled an audacious goal.
See the need. Address the need. That’s the basic approach Bill Satterwhite, MD, takes to his day job is Chief Wellness Officer for Wake Forest Baptist Health. And it’s the same approach he took to the PPE shortage. Satterwhite leads the wellness and direct-to-employer teams at Wake Forest Baptist, developing and implementing employee wellness best practices.
Not one to sit back and wait for solutions to come to him, Dr. Satterwhite quickly assembled a group from his team in mid-March to tackle the PPE crisis, specifically the mask shortage. A shortage of masks for frontline health personnel was obvious at the outset. Once the CDC released recommendations for all people to wear masks while in public, Satterwhite knew there needed to be a new solution.
So his team dragged in sewing machines, dozens of types of fabric and other materials to his team’s space on the top floor of Bailey Power Plant. Together, they spent days prototyping masks from items you could find at the hardware and fabric stores, trying to find the right combinations of materials and design.
“We can do better than a bandana,” thought Satterwhite at the outset of the project when he realized the current supply of masks would never meet the coming waves of demand.
What happened next was emblematic of the very reason a place like the Innovation Quarter was envisioned in the first place.
Stand on the roof of Bailey Power Plant, face directly east, and you’ll find yourself surrounded by at least a dozen redeveloped buildings that have been converted into labs, teaching spaces, lofts and office space. Within a stone’s throw to your left you’ll see Biotech Place, home to several departments of Wake Forest School of Medicine, including Biomedical Engineering.
Having been in the Innovation Quarter for some time, Satterwhite knew he was surrounded by the very scientific experts he would need to take his initial designs to the next step. In order to make sure the masks could be used by users for multiple weeks, they would need to be designed to fit snugly, yet comfortably, and made with materials that were effective, but could also be rewashed multiple times.
Satterwhite and his team worked closely with researchers and technicians with Biomedical Engineering to create different versions that addressed mask fit and comfort. Among the priorities was the ability to build a “breathing pocket” for the mouth and nose, and straps around the back of the head (rather than the ears) to ensure a more snug fit.
Within the matter of a few weeks, the team had developed several viable prototypes. What they didn’t have was a way to mass produce them.
Proximity Breeding Collaboration
Like every business leader, Stan Jewell spent the early days of the U.S. pandemic crisis working to figure out how his company could help. Jewell is the CEO of Renfro, largest sock manufacturers in the U.S., headquartered in nearby Mount Airy.
In early 2019, Renfro opened a satellite office in Bailey Power Plant. Home to Renfro innovation and design teams, the office sits on the second floor in the Innovation Suites, which also houses a dozen other businesses and startups.
So it was natural for Jewell to pick up the phone and call Graydon Pleasants, head of development for the Innovation Quarter for ideas on how to get involved. With Pleasants already clued into the collaborative mask-making effort under way, Renfro officials were in conversations with Satterwhite and the team about how to fire up Renfro’s manufacturing lines to mass produce the masks within less than 48 hours.
From there, the effort intersected with business and civic leaders across the city. Before long, an audacious goal emerged: to get a mask on the face of every single person in Winston-Salem. With Satterwhite’s team’s preliminary work, Biomedical Engineering’s prototyping, Renfro’s design and manufacturing, the goal quickly had gone from audacious to achievable.
Within weeks, Renfro had pivoted its manufacturing capabilities to pump out a million masks per week
Mask the City
The first shipment of masks arrived in Winston-Salem on April 20, a mere 29 days after the whir of sewing machines began on the fifth floor of Bailey Power Plant; just 24 days after the first prototype; and only 19 days after Innovation Quarter officials had connected Satterwhite with Renfro leadership.
With masks in hand, Winston-Salem leaders organized a virtual press conference to announce the Mask the City initiative. Thanks to the collaborative efforts of Wake Forest Baptist employees, Wake Forest School of Medicine researchers, Renfro designers and manufacturing experts and local civic and business leaders, a city had united with a plan to arm every citizen with a mask.
“I’m challenging every person in Winston-Salem to continue practicing social distancing and to wear a mask every time they go outside to help dramatically reduce the spread of COVID-19,” Winston-Salem mayor Allen Joines said in a press release announcing the initiative. “I thank Dr. Satterwhite and his team for their entrepreneurship, Renfro for its willingness to produce the masks as well as the leadership of our two local healthcare organizations, the business community, government officials, faith-based organizations and other not-for-profit organizations for uniting our city under the Mask the City initiative.”
In the coming weeks, those same organizations will begin to provide masks to their employees, to local organizations and to those who cannot afford them.
“Innovation doesn’t happen in silos,” says Julie Ann Freischlag, MD, CEO of Wake Forest Baptist Health and Dean of Wake Forest School of Medicine. “It happens when smart people are put together in close spaces, given a challenge and then work together, leveraging their individual skill sets. That’s exactly what happened here and why it’s so important that we continue to cultivate our innovation ecosystem here in Winston-Salem.”
For information on how to help provide masks to those in need, please visit the Winston-Salem Foundation website.