A Boston greeting-card startup has revised its approach, adding the machinery and personnel necessary to produce and distribute personal protective equipment. Now, thanks to one of its investors, 100,000 medical gowns are being donated to Massachusetts hospitals.
Lovepop, which makes three-dimensional popup greeting cards, is using its engineering know-how to make gowns and face shields, with guidance from the Massachusetts Manufacturing Emergency Response Team, a group helping businesses retool to meet the demand for PPE.
Cofounder Wombi Rose said Lovepop has shipped 300,000 gowns from its production facility in Vietnam and is on track to send more than a million to health care centers in the next couple of months.
“We make things, and we looked at the PPE shortage as somewhere where we might be able to help,” Rose said. “Even knowing that we are spending time on something that is not part of our core business strategy, our team is excited that we are able to take our resources and have an impact.”
But the effort was not an easy decision for the company, which went back and forth with its board of directors about whether devoting resources to PPE would run Lovepop out of business.
“We could only do this with substantial risk, but we felt it was the right thing to do,” said Bob Davis, a partner at Highland Capital Partners in Cambridge who serves on Lovepop’s board. “When we finally all said yes, there was a tear or two shed on that board call — people felt really good, really proud.”
While greeting cards do not resemble gowns or face shields, the company said the efforts to design and make the items are similar. Lovepop increased its manufacturing capacity in Vietnam and sourced new raw material — like the film used for the gowns — sometimes at high cost because of the demand.
“We know we can make the gowns, but we are prepaying for all of this raw material, sometimes getting it, sometimes not getting it . . . that is where the risk is," Davis said. “We are not looking to be a long-term PPE business, we are looking to solve a problem."
Davis, a prominent venture capitalist, was previously the founder and chief executive of Lycos Inc., an early search engine. After working with Lovepop on its PPE efforts, he purchased 100,000 gowns himself, which are being distributed to various clinics, including Cape Cod Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital.
Michael Lauf, the chief executive at Cape Cod Hospital, said Davis arranged to have gown samples tested by workers at the hospital before disclosing the hospital would be receiving 10,000 gowns at no cost.
The process went from " ‘Yes, we will buy the gowns,’ to ‘Oh my gosh, thank you so much,’ ” Lauf said.
Lauf said he would have purchased the gowns anyway, since they were reasonably priced; he said he has seen other products at seven times normal cost. On its website, Lovepop is selling boxes of 80 gowns for $302.
As a local investor, Davis doesn’t view his donation as an industry obligation, he said, but rather as a personal one, noting that two of his family members are nurses working with COVID-19 patients.
“We could have thrown money at a cause, but with the gowns . . . you are giving life-saving equipment that people can’t get access to,” he said. “Do we deserve a pat on the back for the work we are doing? I don’t think so . . . I think we should all be doing what we can.”
Lauf said the hospital goes through hundreds of gowns per day, and having a supply that will last weeks, instead of days, means it can continue its aggressive approach to seeing patients.
“I can’t reinforce how vital it is for [business] leaders . . . to help the greater good,” he said. “It allows us to do what we do best, which is taking care of people and not worrying about where the next gown is going to come from.”
Lovepop was founded by naval engineers Wombi Rose and John Wise in 2014 out of the Harvard Innovation Lab and employs over 500 people, most of whom are in Vietnam. The company aimed to disrupt the greeting card industry with inspiration from the paper art form kirigami, which the founders discovered during a school trip to Vietnam.