There is no doubt where Ron Ben-Zeev sees his place in the world. Apologizing for his hectic schedule, he notes that as the coronavirus spreads, "The sky is falling, and we are some of the people who are trying to hold up the sky."
Ben-Zeev's Sanford, Florida-based company, World Housing Solution, makes temporary shelters. He's been holding up his part of the sky since 2008, when, with a background in real estate and construction, he figured out how to make a fully insulated, 800-square-foot building that could be assembled by six people in four hours, by hand. Ben-Zeev initially thought he could use the structures to help house people after storms hit Haiti. That plan didn't come to fruition, but the company drew interest from the U.S. Navy, and since then has worked primarily with the military. In 2019, World Housing Solution ranked No. 206 on the Inc. 5000 list.
Now, Ben-Zeev sees his company playing a crucial role in combating the spread of the novel coronavirus. His buildings, made of panels with a solid foam core, a laminated fiberglass skin, and a galvanized steel edge, can be made in sizes all the way up to 100,000 square feet. Many have withstood hurricanes and tropical storms. Ben-Zeev believes they could be a good option for hospitals in their efforts to isolate coronavirus patients, or to accommodate the overflow many are predicting.
A year and a half ago, Ben-Zeev was asked to deliver a health care clinic to Puerto Rico that would be off the grid and truly mobile. That clinic started as a temporary system and now is a fully-accredited health-care facility on the island of Vieques. Why not do the same thing in the continental U.S.?
But when Ben-Zeev called three hospital systems six weeks ago, he was surprised by the response. His pitch was that they should prepare now, so that when coronavirus patients show up, they'll have somewhere to put them. The hospitals, he says, weren't too interested. At the time, they seemed to be worried about stigmatizing coronavirus patients by housing them outside of the main hospital. More recently, the hospitals have shown more interest, but they're worried about being reimbursed for the expense. Here's how he plans to pitch them and get them on board.
Play up the benefits over alternatives
Eventually, Ben-Zeev says, hospitals will need more space. Under the "moderate" coronavirus scenario released by the Harvard Global Health Institute on March 17, U.S. hospitals will have to more than double the number of beds they provide. (In the best-case scenario, 95 percent of beds will be filled nationally, leaving excess capacity in some places and overflow in others.) The alternative to Ben-Zeev's system, he says, are tents. Where he works in Florida, it's 90 degrees, and his structures are a lot less expensive to keep cool than a tent. They cost more than tents on a per-square-foot basis, but per-patient they're comparable because you can hang things on the walls, freeing up floor space. And the building components can all be disinfected and reused once this crisis has passed.
Point out payment options
World Housing Solution's buildings run from $200,000 to $280,000 for a space that accommodates 19 patients. Two recently passed laws, he says, could help hospitals pay for extra capacity. The Stafford Act, he says, empowers the Federal Emergency Management Agency to get more aid to state and local governments. And the Federal Defense Production Act, which President Trump invoked on Wednesday, would help small companies like his get working capital to ramp up quickly.
Prepare to scale
Ben-Zeev knows he can't provide every needed hospital bed himself. But he's convinced World Housing Solution can make a difference. He's been talking to people who are out of work or underemployed, and he says his 20-employee company has 100 more people ready to go who could have new buildings ready in two weeks. (The business typically produces about 100,000 square feet of buildings every year, but the founder says he's prepared to increase that by a factor of five.) He has supply-chain partners ready to get him negative air pressure systems used to prevent cross-contamination, and says he has 14 ventilators available. And he's talking to events companies that suddenly have empty space, which could be used to manufacture the panels.
"It's like we're saying, 'Put us in, Coach!'" he says.