Maryland Medical Industries co-owners: Kim Strassner, Patrick Iles, Samantha Kiffer, Dan Janssen, Cecilia Grimm, Matthew Williams, and Jeremiah Jones (seated). Not pictured: Robert Andelman, Jill Andrews

 

Stronger Together is a series of entrepreneur profiles created by Baltimore Small  for Made In Baltimore. Each profile tells a story of innovation and collaboration in the face of the challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.  This story first appeared in Bmore Art on June 9th 2021.

“What we’ve accomplished gives us a lot to be excited about. We’ve hand-made 90,000 N95s within the last couple of months. Almost all of those have gone to the Maryland Food Bank. That feels really good.”

“When my company, Mount Royal Soaps, pivoted towards making hand sanitizer at the beginning of the pandemic, we were connected with Jill from Jill Andrews Gowns and Kim and Mike from Words with Boards. They started working together to make cloth masks. They were trying to make N95 Filtration Pockets with the folks from Harbor Design using their CNC laser cutter. Initially, they had a difficult time getting the filtration right, so we started joking around after-hours about the idea of starting a disposable N95 respirator mask business.  

We then heard that Jeremiah and Cecilia from SewLab USA and Rob from Nightmare Graphics were playing around with the same idea. Since the N95 equipment is so expensive, we figured we should reach out to them and see if they wanted to start the business together. 

Our partner, Jeremiah, refers to this stage of business as ‘the naivety of entrepreneurship.’ It’s that stage when you  have no clue about what you’re getting into, but the excitement and potential propel you forward. We kept playing around with the idea, and finally, when you get enough crazy people in a room, you egg each other on…and eventually we decided to purchase an N95 Respirator Machine that makes masks.  

Maryland Medical Industries was formed as a collaboration between Mount Royal Soaps, Imperium Shaving, Words with Boards, Jill Andrews Gowns, SewLab USA, and Nightmare Graphics.  

There’s a slim chance of success at getting a manufacturing enterprise like this off the ground, but we had a much better shot at it with all of us bringing our experiences of owning and operating small businesses to the table.

 Anytime you get that many business owners working together, you’re bound to get some friction. We’re all small business owners because we hate having bosses. In the beginning, there was some head butting, I think mainly from me, but remarkably, it’s been going pretty smoothly on that front for a while now. The idea that eight knuckleheads can get together and make something meaningful happen is pretty cool. 

Maryland Medical Industries’ N95 masks

“We’ve come to learn each other’s strengths so we’re able to be much more collaborative at this point.”

For example, Dan from Imperium Shaving is great at making relationships so he’s been the glue that has kept us together. He has a very Zen presence. He keeps us motivated and on the same page and he’s great at making sales. Jill is very educated with cloth and materials. Jeremiah and Cecilia are excellent with procurement and operations. Mount Royal Soaps has played a large role in numbers and accounting. Kim from Words with Boards is great with design, and Rob from Nightmare Graphics is great at managing production. 

For the last year, there have been no breaks or personal time. The fact that no one on the team is divorced is a success in itself.  My wife, Sam, and I are newlyweds and we are doing better than ever. Maybe a little attention has been diverted from our business (Mount Royal Soaps) but it’s been for a great cause.  

The lessons learned have been non-stop. I think we have yet to encounter the most stressful part of this operation. Every week we’ve experienced something new. Equipment has been delayed and/or arrived damaged. One piece of equipment exploded and almost killed one of us. We’ve had to figure out all of the supply chain and the logistical issues during the middle of a deadly pandemic, consider our safety and secure our workforce. Yeah, it’s been a lot. 

Maryland Medical Industries co-owners: Kim Strassner, Patrick Iles, Samantha Kiffer, Dan Janssen, Cecilia Grimm, Matthew Williams, and Jeremiah Jones (seated). Not pictured: Robert Andelman, Jill Andrews

Anytime we get pissed off or discouraged, we have to remind ourselves that we are really helping folks. What we’ve accomplished gives us a lot to be excited about. We’ve hand-made 90,000 N95s within the last couple of months. Almost all of those have gone to the Maryland Food Bank. That feels really good. 

I think I’m most proud that our team held it together and executed a crazy idea that we were joking about just months ago. We’re still moving forward, but I hope that we did something that had an impact in preventing the spread of the disease in our community; even  in the smallest way. I think I can feel pretty good about that. That’s what I want to take with me. “

Patrick Iles from Mount Royal Soaps

Once this pandemic slows down, the public demand for N95’s will go down dramatically so we are considering a couple more collaborations with local non-profits that may be beneficial to keep this mask business sustaining. Manufacturing locally is something that I’m very passionate about so it’s my hope to reinvigorate local and regional manufacturing of affordable, basic goods. That is something that all of our partners in Maryland Medical Industries are aligned on— especially since we all experienced the reality of the COVID supply chain issues. 

I think COVID opened a lot of people’s eyes as to what can happen at any time with the PPE supply demand. As local and regional manufacturers, it’s our job to figure out a way to make products, make them affordable, and also be really good to the people that work for them. It’s just not going to work if you can’t do all of those things.

Interview and Photography by Jon Bregel via @BaltimoreSmall

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