Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Knotzland, Protohaven, and Day Owl thrived as important elements of the maker economy. As the crisis worsened, they pivoted operations to help create personal protective equipment (PPE) for essential workers, first responders, and underserved communities.
The pivot required vision and courage. It also required responsive and flexible capital. Bridgeway Capital and its Creative Business Accelerator (CBA) provided these leaders with funds to retool and respond.
Nisha Blackwell didn’t start Knotzland to make fabric face masks. But as the need for COVID-19 protection emerged in her community, she was quick to respond. The creative business already used reclaimed fabric and materials to make unique bow ties. In the early days of COVID-19, Nisha began making masks for family and friends, especially essential workers, using fabric Knotzland received over the holidays from different quilters and textile companies.
But as the pandemic continued, larger orders started coming in: up to 2000 masks at a time. She knew that she and her team of sewists could fill them; they just needed help. She turned to Bridgeway’s CBA.
“Creative business owners like Nisha are highly adaptive,” said CBA Director Adam Kenney. “So right out of the gate, they were envisioning how they could contribute.”
With a CBA grant, Knotzland was able to re-engage its sewists, make new connections with sewing businesses within the CBA’s network, and allocate funds to start making masks for different partners. “It helped us modify our workspace to accommodate larger orders, get materials, and pay our sewist community,” Blackwell said. “It relaunched economic opportunity.”
Knotzland is one of several local creative businesses that have shifted their attention and capacity to COVID response, producing large orders of plastic and soft-good PPE for healthcare and first-response institutions. These efforts are aided by CBA, which is responding rapidly to provide capital and technical assistance so that makers can prototype PPE, scale-up production, and connect with essential workers and underserved communities in need.
Affordable housing provider ACTION-Housing represents one example of Knotzland’s impact. ACTION-Housing serves vulnerable populations, so access to PPE emerged as a significant challenge. They requested 200 masks for residents and staff, and Nisha delivered.
“The 200 masks from Knotzland’s team of sewists helps protect our residents and staff,” commented Lena Andrews, director of Real Estate Development at ACTION-Housing. “I’ve always liked Nisha’s bowties, so I’m excited that ACTION-Housing will benefit from her mask production – we can be safe and stylish at the same time!”
Protohaven, a makerspace based in Wilkinsburg, considered shutting down as the pandemic intensified. While not a creative business, Protohaven serves as a nonprofit organization activated by a community of maker members. While other cultural institutions were closing their doors, Protohaven pursued an opportunity to put their expertise and equipment to work. Since then, they emerged as an integral and innovative part of the local PPE supply chain. The team designed efficient and inexpensive face shields to utilize their laser cutters.
They created an open-source cloth face mask design for easier production by their community of volunteer home sewists. Despite this capability, they needed capital to meet demand.
“The CBA staff and network have been incredibly valuable to scaling our PPE production, and the grant gave us the confidence to start scaling those efforts,” said Devin Montgomery, executive director at Protohaven. “Before their funding, about 50 masks a week were being made, now we’re over 500 a week and will soon be over 1000.”
Some of the face shields from Protohaven helped Day Owl’s efforts to get larger PPE orders to strategic partners like Global Links. For Ian Rosenberger, CEO of Thread International, envisioning the shift to PPE began within two days of Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf’s stay-at-home order.
Thread’s direct-to-consumer line, Day Owl, makes backpacks and pouches from recycled trash and plastic. In the wake of COVID, sales were down 70 percent, and three employees had to be laid off. “There was no way we could sit on our hands,” Rosenberger said.
Day Owl received a Bridgeway grant to pivot fast, reimagining their supply chain and developing plastic shields for use over N95 masks. Because of Day Owl’s existing relationships with suppliers, they were able to access the necessary materials and make their first plastic shield in three weeks.
Now, Day Owl is producing 20,000 per week. A subsequent emergency loan from Bridgeway helped them scale up production. The shields are being deployed to hospitals, hospices, and nursing homes around the country, from Pittsburgh to Texas.
“Bridgeway has been critical,” Rosenberger said. Day Owl is located at 7800 Susquehanna Street, Bridgeway’s hub for manufacturing, makers, small businesses, nonprofits, and job training in Pittsburgh’s Homewood neighborhood. Bridgeway allowed tenants to defer rent, which helped Day Owl redeploy funds toward paying employees, including bringing back laid-off staff.
“We’re located in Homewood, over half our staff is minority, 90 percent of them are women,” Rosenberger said. “These are the types of businesses that we need to keep going.”
The research and development process has proven the adage about moving fast and breaking things, Rosenberger said. “The Bridgeway loan allowed us to keep a steady hand on the tiller. You need a good keel when these things are happening.”
As western Pennsylvania begins to reopen safely, Bridgeway and its CBA program stand ready to connect small businesses with financing to refocus services and maximize opportunities in the recovery economy. Bridgeway has made over $385,000 in grants and loans to nonprofits and creative businesses that are leading the regional effort to get PPE to first responders, essential workers, and communities in need. That’s capital with a cause.