Published Saturday, October 24, 2020 10:00PM EDT Last Updated Saturday, October 24, 2020 10:14PM EDT
TORONTO — A well-known Canadian toy maker is adding mask-making to its business model, in hopes of ensuring Canada doesn’t experience another dangerously low supply of personal protective equipment.
Irwin Toy has been making children’s games for nearly a century. But things changed in March after CEO George Irwin and his wife, Brenda Elliott, contracted COVID-19 following a trip overseas.
“I could not get out of bed,” George Irwin told CTV News. “It was debilitating for me, for somebody who’s an active guy. I was bed-ridden.”
Brenda Elliott says she struggled to breathe and had to sleep sitting up. It was a sobering realization of the severity of the virus.
“We figured that if it did this to us and we had mild symptoms, I can’t imagine what people are going through full blown COVID,” she said.
As the couple recovered in isolation, Canada was scrambling to secure enough PPE for frontline workers and those who needed it most, and had issued a call for help to businesses. Irwin received an email from a company in China that had long produced toys for the company and had recently switched over to making masks asking if Irwin his wife wanted some.
“We looked at this and went, ‘Wow, because of what we’ve just been through, we need to figure out a way to get masks to the people that need it,” he said.
So Irwin Toy launched a massive effort to import masks to Canada, securing more than 10 million masks over several months.
It was a difficult task, made no easier by the fact that countries around the world were scrambling to buy much-needed PPE. They experienced a litany of problems, including jacked-up air freight costs and planes that landed in Canada without any cargo.
“It was like the wild, wild west, and I know that phrase has been used many times in this pandemic, but I’ve never experienced so many things that could go wrong did go wrong,” Irwin said.
The challenges made the Irwins realize just how important a reliable domestic stockpile of PPE is for Canada. It also got them thinking about how they could create a long-lasting solution.
“We thought, ‘Enough of this,’” said Elliott. “We thought, ‘Our frontline workers cannot be put into this position ever again.’”
The Collingwood, Ont. couple set up a new company called Trebor Rx with the plan to produce two types of Canadian masks. The first is the more common three-ply surgical masks, finding a factory near Toronto that will start pumping out an estimated 700,000 masks a day in November.
The second is a new type of mask created by Eiliott’s nephew in South Africa, where it is already approved and sold.
Made of plastic, the PRO+ can be used for a month and cleaned with a wipe, in a dishwasher or an autoclave. Filters on either side of the mask are changed daily. Once finished, the company picks up the masks and recycles the plastic.
The entrepreneurs are outfitting a 25,000-square-foot factory and preparing to hire some 100 people locally to produce some 50,000 respirators per day, pending Health Canada approval. Once operational, the company will become one of Canada’a biggest mask-makers.
The toy business and masks turn out not to be so different after all, says Irwin. They used the template for toy safety to guide them through mask design and production.
“Nobody wants to sell a toy to a child that’s going to hurt them or affect them in any bad way,” said Irwin. “And you go through all kinds of safety precautions to do that and that same formula is one that we put in place for masks.”
When it comes to adapting a business to help fight the pandemic, Irwin Toy is hardly alone. Many manufacturers have modified their businesses to supply much-needed materials, including fashion designers making non-medical cloth masks and breweries adding alcohol-based sanitizer to their business model.
By opening the business here, Irwin hopes to limit Canada’s reliance on offshore production, which can be both fickle and expensive.
“We automatically off-shored everything when we didn’t have to. And I think COVID is going to get people thinking about what really we can bring back,” said Irwin.
And even with just pending federal approval, the couple says they’ve already received international interest.
“We have orders for masks in Canada, the United States, Australia, and the Caribbean. And they’re all waiting for us to get th
e Health Canada nod,” Irwin said.
Brenda Elliott said that, for her, the decision had everything to do with helping the frontline workers most at risk of catching the virus.