In March, Thomas Picciano placed an emergency overnight order to Starc Systems, a manufacturer of reusable walls based in Brunswick, Maine. Picciano is manager of engineering at New York City's Northwell Lenox Hill Hospital, which desperately needed a way to isolate and monitor Covid-19 patients. With a couple of colleagues, Picciano erected more than 30 feet of Starc's see-through panels and doors in two hours, transforming an operating room into a recovery area.
"I am going to expand my stock," says Picciano, who also used the solid panels to section off a doctors' suite into individual testing sites. "I will never use another product."
When battling a pandemic, you go to war with the infrastructure you have. But how you carve up that infrastructure, be it a hospital, a shelter, an office, or a classrooms, can determine whether the illness spreads. The kind of flexibility enabled in happier times by modular homes and shipping container offices is increasingly in demand for health care's interior spaces, as separation becomes a critical firewall against infection.
The temporary walls produced by Starc Systems--which in 2019 was No. 460 on the Inc. 5000 and had $14.6 million in revenue--were designed originally to contain dust, debris, and noise in spaces undergoing renovations. The panels can be extended to the ceiling and sealed; vestibules create an extra buffer to protect people in hallways or nearby rooms. The systems allow hospitals and health care facilities to continue performing patient procedures, even while an ICU is being expanded. (Health care is Starc's primary application, although it traditionally sold to construction companies working in hospitals.)
Hospitals with large numbers of contagious patients must care for them in rooms where negative air pressure prevents contaminants from escaping. By erecting Starc's walls and anterooms--which achieve negative pressure by creating an air-tight seal and exhausting air from the room through a vent--facilities can transform waiting rooms, cafeterias, or lobbies into safe spaces. Or they can alter the configuration of existing rooms to house more people. The panels are made from a range of materials that may include aluminum, foam to reduce noise, and glass.
Even when hospitals are not stretched beyond capacity by Covid-19, the negative pressure units make the whole building safer to bring in patients for surgeries and other procedures that generate much-needed revenue. And as circumstances change, CEO Chris Vickers says, "you can switch to different uses with different combinations of the same product."
Starc's revenue jumped 250 percent in March over the previous year; all sales from March through May have been isolation products. To meet demand, the company doubled its manufacturing space and has hired 26 people, increasing its headcount to 69. Even as caseloads decline in some cities, hospitals are still buying so they're better prepared for whatever might come next.
Starc is also working with schools and businesses on solutions more tangible than social distancing. Office complexes are asking about see-through walls extending six or seven feet around desks. The company has even been approached by an indoor golf company. "They'd like to create a division with their restaurant space and so groups golfing are more quarantined from the next group over," Vickers says.
Thinking inside the box
Ron Ben-Zeev is also embracing agile interiors, but only after his preferred approach--agile exteriors--failed to resonate. As founder of Sanford, Florida-based World Housing Solution (No. 206 on the 2019 Inc. 5000), Ben-Zeev manufactures modular buildings, commonly used by the military for field clinics. When Covid-19 struck, he began urging hospitals to set up portable triage centers outside their buildings. "The reaction was no, no, no," Ben-Zeev says. "We are not going to ostracize our patients."
So World Housing Solutions pivoted. It has just released Quad Pods, panels treated with an anti-viral coating that, when snapped into place, form multibed bays with nurses' stations. Equipment such as exam lights and monitors come mounted on the walls. Well-schooled in the disaster-relief industry, Ben-Zeev imagines setting up the pods not just in hospitals but also in shopping malls, convention centers, or "wherever you have real estate and there is need."
The Quad Pods are "dramatically cheaper" than the company's external structures, says Ben-Zeev, which may spur sales. (World Housing has not yet finalized prices.) It has just started pitching hospitals as well as governments at all levels on the new products. And Ben-Zeev imagines other applications arising from the pandemic's economic fallout. "Over 30 million people unemployed," he says. "Think homelessness. Think transitional housing."