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People donated millions to buy protective gear for hospitals. These Harvard students figure out where to spend it

Sophie Bai is leading a volunteer effort to purchase protective equipment for hospital staffers with donated money.
Sophie Bai is leading a volunteer effort to purchase protective equipment for hospital staffers with donated money.Sophie Bai

People have donated millions of dollars to help hospitals get crucial protective equipment that is being sold at a huge markup because of global demand associated with the coronavirus. But even for those that have the money, the competition to get the gear can be brutal.

To help ease the burden on purchasing teams at the region’s medical centers, a hastily assembled team of Harvard Business School students has joined the fray ― pulling overnight shifts from their apartments and working contacts in China, where much of the needed equipment is made.

“It’s a seller’s market,” said Sophie Bai, who grew up in China and is pursuing her MBA at Harvard. “Everybody in the world is flying to China trying to get supplies, and people need to pay premiums.”

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Bai is leading a 12-person team of volunteers who are trying to find good deals before somebody else does.

The group, which calls itself PPEople First, has at its disposal about $3 million that has been donated to a fund managed by the nonprofit Boston Foundation. By the middle of last week, they had placed more than $2.1 million in orders for roughly 1.7 million pieces of equipment, including masks, respirators, and protective coveralls.

About 400,000 pieces of that equipment have arrived so far at sites including Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Boston Medical Center, Brigham And Women’s Hospital, and Massachusetts General Hospital.

Donors to the fund include Silicon Valley Bank, private equity investor Andrew Balson and his wife, Melora, venture capitalist Jeff Bussgang, and the John W. Henry Family Foundation. (Henry is owner and publisher of The Boston Globe).

Tim Smith, senior director of philanthropy at the Boston Foundation, said he has been struck by the complexity of the endeavor, including “how many people and parties and different types of expertise have to get involved in bringing something to the United States through charitable dollars.”

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Smith said he does not know of any similar efforts being undertaken by community foundations, so he and his colleagues have been leaning on expertise from other sectors of the economy.

“Everything we’re doing is learning,” he said. “But I think it will help us prepare, and help the region prepare, for future disasters.”

Bussgang described the project as “an only in Boston story,” citing the combination of legacy players such as the law firm Ropes & Gray ― which is representing the fund for free ― and new-economy contributors such as the financial technology firm Flywire, which has offered its platform to quickly process the transactions needed for the deals to go through.

But it is the “sweat equity" of the students, as Smith described it, that’s making the program run. In a way, Bai said, the hunt for quality products can feel like an adventure: “We’re basically like a bunch of elves who are treasure hunting,” she said.

But Bai said it’s never far from her mind that they are urgently trying to solve a serious problem.

“Many of our friends are doctors here. They are not protected at all, and we are very worried about them,” she said “So anything we can do to help them is what really is driving us.”

Bai, 29, grew up in China and has lived in Boston for about a decade. When she made a trip to Shanghai early this year, Bai noticed that people everywhere were talking about the shortage of personal protective equipment.

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“No country was set up to handle that demand for a pandemic like this,” she said.

As the virus began to spread around the Boston area, Bai said, she began to think about ways she could help and reached out to a family friend back home with connections in the medical supply business. She asked one of her professors for ideas about where there was a need, and he put her in touch with Brigham and Women’s.

Using donated money, she put together an initial order, and when the products came through, she and her colleagues began ramping up operations. Bai spends much of the day communicating with hospitals about their needs. At night here, it’s morning in China, so Bai gets rolling with her contacts there. Later, when she goes to sleep, a colleague on the West Coast takes over.

But simply finding products is not enough. Chinese and US standards and regulations that affect the shipping of personal protective equipment are shifting regularly, Bai said, and since many hospitals have been burned before during this crisis, some were at first wary about the quality of the goods they would receive.

“They have been approached by a lot of brokers and resellers, and it leads nowhere,” Bai said. She believes her experience with both countries ― and her ability to understand how regulations work here and overseas ― has helped her bridge the gap

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Though the process is different from the one hospitals usually use, the system has been working so far.

“In the battle against COVID-19, personal protective equipment is critically important armor, and we continue to move mountains to get our staff the equipment they need," Beth Israel Lahey Health’s chief executive, Dr. Kevin Tabb, said in an e-mail. "We are grateful to the entrepreneurial Harvard Business School students and others who are working with us and using their skills to address a complex international supply chain challenge.”





Andy Rosen can be reached at andrew.rosen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @andyrosen.