On March 22, eight people on a Zoom call implored manufacturers and medical-supply companies for help. An innovation manager at a staffing firm for emergency rooms around the U.S. explained that his hospital clients were running dangerously low on PPE. Could someone hook them up? The owner of a medical device company described a project to develop 3-D-printed nasal swabs for Covid-19 test kits. He needed assistance with the "last mile": sterilization and packaging.
Presiding over the session was Rich Stump, co-founder and chief commercial officer of Fathom, a 198-employee business based in Oakland, California. For three months, the product-development services company that specializes in 3-D printing and additive manufacturing has nimbly bounded among projects, partners, and customers: sourcing, developing, and fabricating whatever the medical community most needs.
"The supply chain follows the phases of the pandemic," says Stump, whose company last year had $40 million in revenue and made the Inc. 5000 list for the seventh time. "We follow the supply chain trying to help where there are shortages."
The Zoom call--which Stump shared on social media and through an email campaign--was intended to build bridges between groups needing PPE or other assistance and those who could supply it. More than 100 organizations that viewed the call signed on to help.
Currently, Covid-19 supplies comprise about 40 percent of Fathom's revenue, a proportion that is declining as the company's regular customers resume operations. But the Covid work and a few other projects enabled Stump to bring back the entire workforce. And as long as medical-supply shortages last, Fathom will continue to assemble teams around those gaps.
"The speed at which you can do things by bringing people together in this environment is incredible," Stump says. "I think Covid may have changed the supply chain forever."
From masks to vents to swabs
Born into a family of engineers, Stump worked with Silicon Valley companies to improve product development before co-founding Fathom in 2008. The business started as a distributor of large, industrial 3-D printers manufactured in Israel. Over time, it segued into a services model, printing parts for companies engaged in rapid prototyping or low-volume production.
Because 3-D printing doesn't scale to mass production, PPE, which Stump calls "phase one," did not fit neatly into Fathom's wheelhouse. But the company employs 56 people in China, which by mid-March was past its pandemic peak. Looking for ways to help, Stump sent his managers to Chinese factories to buy up existing inventory of masks, gowns, and face shields and to place orders for more. He imported the supplies and sold them, at cost, chiefly to companies operating assisted living facilities. Finding hospital supply chains too tough to penetrate, he simply donated several thousand masks to those institutions, as well as to fire departments.
When President Trump invoked the Defense Production Act in early April, Stump turned to phase two: ventilators. Quickly, he signed on to develop and print parts for seven projects. Those include one run by a major car manufacturer; a large-scale open-source initiative by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and a project launched by two Vermont aerospace engineers chasing a simple, low-cost unit.
So far, Fathom has developed everything from one ventilator's metal housing to another's pumping mechanism. With Fathom's support, the seven teams are ramping up to produce more than 100,000 ventilators in the next three months.
Phase three is the swabs. That project, started back in March, took just 35 days to complete. It began when Ramy Arnaout, a Harvard Medical School doctor, decried the shortage of nasal swabs hamstringing Covid-19 testing and called for novel designs that could be rapidly produced in volume. Medical device firm Abiogenix, a Fathom customer, stepped up. Goutam Reddy, Abiogenix's founder, reached out to Stump. He helped stitch together a team that also included Hewlett-Packard--one of Fathom's vendors--and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, another Fathom customer that agreed to help with testing.
The swab team's challenge was to make the products flexible but sturdy enough to insert into a nasal cavity, with a comfortable tip and maximum fluid absorption. Clinicians at Harvard, Stanford, and other sites provided feedback on 25 iterations of the prototype. The swab's spiral design was preferred over others in a clinical trial at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, in Boston. "Fathom has been an integral part of this journey, from printing our first prototypes to designing, testing, and honing mass-manufacture of the swabs," Reddy says.
Abiogenix is shipping 100,000 orders of 3-D-printed swabs to U.S. hospitals and health care organizations, a number Reddy says he hopes to increase to the millions. Since Fathom's production capacity is limited, Stump also helped Abiogenix locate other suppliers to fill the need.
Stump has not seen phase four of supply chain demand, although, he says, "I am hearing that as testing becomes more widespread, there will be shortages of other components of the kits." He has his eye on test tubes.