By Alexia Kalaiztzi
It’s Sunday afternoon. Our interview is adapted to the conditions imposed by the pandemic: conducted from home via the internet. On my computer screen I see the tired but satisfied faces of three volunteers of the “COVID-19 Response Greece” initiative, which in the mere ten days since its formation has managed to provide thousands of face shields for doctors on the front line of the battle against the coronavirus.
Start-uppers and scientists of Thessaloniki joined forces in an attempt to do what they know best: to provide immediate and practical solutions. “From the start we said that we are not interested in wasting energy on theoretical solutions,” says Dimitris Kourtesis, an entrepreneur and the coordinator of the initiative, explaining that the team decided to focus initially on the manufacture of face shields in order to address the pressing problem posed by the shortage of adequate eye protection for doctors.
That is when Harry Geremtzes and Dimitris Moustakas got involved, co-founders of AidPlex, a startup involved with innovation in the health sector, as did Thodoris-Alexandros Marioglou from Project: Veltio. Working day and night, they managed within three days to design and create two different prototype shields, one made using 3D printing and the other through laser cutting, in order to assess them and to find the first factory that could mass produce the shields at cost.
Harry and Dimitris describe these days as a marathon with countless phone calls and hospital visits, hours spent cutting sheets of plastic one night at a factory, and little sleep. “There are no hours anymore,” Dimitris Moustakas tells me. “We were called [by a doctor] at five in the morning and told about a shortage, that there was a great need. The feeling that creates is one of, ‘I need to get out of bed, despite the fact that it is five in the morning, and to continue doing what I am doing, because someone needs it in the next hour.’”
Their efforts bore fruit when they saw, ready and packed in cardboard boxes, the first 5,000 shields. At the time of writing that number has reached 15,000 shields. The cost for their manufacture was borne by the Medical Association of Thessaloniki, while the cost for the first shipment of masks that went directly to the hospitals was covered by the startups that participated in the effort.
“The best thing is when we are sent messages by simple individuals who have already received the shields and who thank us for all of this. It is very moving,” says Harry Geremtzes.
On top of providing thousands of face shields in record time, the team has also offered the designs for their manufacture for free under a Creative Commons license, allowing any company to produce units easily, quickly and at low cost, under the sole condition that they do not seek to profit off them.
“I didn’t know that this community had this kind of power. For me that automatically means that anything is possible,” Kourtesis says towards the end of our discussion, noting that the collective effort will not stop here. Following an open call, COVID-19 Response Greece has already amassed over 160 volunteers, while its restless members are already working in parallel to create face masks,substitute devices for the non-invasive ventilation of patients, and logistical tools.
This article was first published in Greek by “K” magazine.