Five Iowa entrepreneurs have established a supply line of medical-grade personal protective equipment (PPE) for health care workers from China to the U.S., and the team is seeking more medical facilities stateside to provide for. 

At the start of this year, Anisul Huq, Camille Renee, Julien Duhautois, Tim Vastine and Yolanda Wei were coworking colleagues at Gravitate in Des Moines with varied professional backgrounds and connections to factories across the world. Once the COVID-19 pandemic swept the news, the five established One World Supplies. 

“We started reading the news about the PPE shortages and decided we were going to start with whatever product we could find,” Huq said. “It turned out the first ones were masks — the three-ply and the respirator masks.” 

Today, One World Supplies delivers around 13 types of medical-grade products including varieties of masks, hospital gowns and gloves. All of the products are delivered by air freight to the U.S. from Chinese factories that Huq’s team has identified and sourced with assistance from Chinese brokers. Six weeks ago the team approved the first factory to provide PPE; since that time, the group has approved eight factories. 

One World Supplies

“We have to go to specific medical-grade factories that have the ability to export from China — right now the laws are changing every day, which makes it very difficult to get anything out of there,” Huq said.  

One World Supplies has relied on word of mouth to connect with medical facility administrators. For now, they supply Dignity Health, which owns 140 hospitals including the MercyOne Central Iowa locations, and several small health clinics nationally. 

The initial first order, which couldn’t provide for the KN95 masks requested at the time, ran about $1.3 million, Huq said. 

The group is importing “millions” of three-ply masks, and a recent order called for around 500,000 surgical gowns, shipped by air and arriving every two to three weeks. Each order is different as the company tries to respond to what hospitals predict their next urgent need will be. 

“The latest needs have been gowns, surgical gowns. They’re asking us to give them the maximum number of products we can find that can be shipped in two weeks,” Huq said. “Right now gowns are the biggest thing in the world, and those prices fluctuate daily. … In three days, the price jumped on us $4 [per gown]. We’ve noticed that for gowns, they’re going up $1 to $2 every week. 

“Everyone in the world is over there trying to get this stuff, and it’s hard to get a price locked in when you have people coming in from all over the world with duffel bags of cash.”

Beyond just vetting each factory’s legal certification to produce medical equipment, One World Supplies is also vetting the factories’ ability to produce consistently. Fabric to produce both face masks and medical gowns is tightly controlled in China; when a factory told Huq’s team that it could not access material for respirator masks, they had to pass the news on to U.S. medical customers. 

At one point, about 800,000 masks were stuck in Chinese customs because of a change in law invalidating the packaging. 

“It is monumental. Every single day there’s something new,” Huq said. “All the warehouse spaces are filled up, so as you’re waiting for a flight in a couple of days, where do you put anything? … [We’re] working all night while organizing in China [everything] from freight logistics, to negotiating prices with factories.” 

“We’re solving. Every night, somehow, we’re still moving forward,” he added. 

It’s been a day-and-night job communicating with U.S. hospitals and Chinese contacts. It also put previous projects on an indefinite pause for these entrepreneurs; Huq stopped working on an app in development to manage communications, orders and payments with U.S. medical buyers. 

“We’ve paid ourselves a small distribution just to keep us afloat for the next month or two so we can stay focused on this. We won’t need much, we’re just working from home,” he said. “We’re going to help as long as they need. … The thing that is going to keep us in business is our ability to vet factories quickly, and have a trusted product supply that is still going to be needed when the world opens up to normal out there. 

“I’ve never worked these kinds of hours; I don’t think any of us ever have,” he added. 

“Everyone’s full-time, working unbelievably hard in their roles, executing at the highest possible level. It’s been really cool to see.”

Correction 9:14 a.m.: This story has corrected the number of medical gowns imported to the U.S. in a recent order, which is 500,000. We apologize for the error.