As the coronavirus began to take hold in March, it didn’t take long for 66-year-old Bill Threadgold to spot an opportunity to drive some business – and also do some good.
And it’s not his first time.
In 2010, Threadgold was first to develop and patent a range of innovative seismic bracing products to protect equipment following the devastating earthquake that struck Christchurch, still exporting these products into international markets today.
A decade on, the founder of family-owned business Air Diffusion Agencies has helped build a new type of “fan and filter” box designed to shield health workers from infection by extracting air and cleaning it through a series of filters, before releasing it back into the affected room and adjoining corridors. After being designed over a weekend, the prototypes were requested by Adelaide’s Flinders Medical Centre and built in just two weeks. After testing, Flinders immediately bought eight units and ordered another six.
“You’ve got to keep coming up with something new, got to keep on diversifying and got to keep investing in the business,” says Threadgold, the boss of the Adelaide-based firm.
This jibes with Ian Nightingale, South Australia’s industry advocate. “Innovative businesses are those that can respond to changing market conditions and this company is one that can,” he says.
While Threadgold’s new unit looks like an upgrade of a machine built during the SARS outbreak in 2007, he says the earlier model was too noisy, cumbersome, had ineffective filters and “dumped the air outside”.
In contrast, the COVID model works without disturbing a hospital’s air conditioning system by recycling air back into a room. In addition, it’s much quieter – allowing patients to sleep – and can be fitted in any hospital room.
“We haven’t had to use them but they’re sitting there ready to go,” says Bob Crossman, strategic asset manager at Southern Adelaide Local Health Network, which includes Flinders Medical Centre, adding that the goal was to stay ahead of the health crisis by having “everything in place to reduce the hazards”.
The idea is to mimic an isolation room at a low cost, added Brad Maynard, managing director of Systems Solutions, which collaborated with Air Diffusion to produce the new product. “Typically, a hospital might have five or 10 isolation rooms but what if there is a further surge in COVID-19 and suddenly hundreds of people get sick and require hospitalisation?” he says. “You could spend up to $100,000 building a respiratory isolation room whereas the unit costs $10 000 and can be rolled out much faster.”
But surprisingly for Threadgold, demand hasn’t been as high as expected from virus-stricken states. While he recognises that the scope of the emergency is still unknown, he believes the product could be beneficial in places like Victoria following the state’s spike in cases.
“It’s a significant improvement on what was developed 15 years ago,” Threadgold says.
Nick Reade, the chief of one of the state’s biggest lenders, BankSA, says many SME businesses were changing their operations after being negatively impacted by COVID-19, often by adding more products, boosting their online presence or launching new distribution channels. But he says the situation remains tenuous for SMEs as the crisis rolls on, with 63 per cent of BankSA’s customers considering their financial situation to be vulnerable, making policies that support small business and broader communities critical as the nation looks to recovery.
“The current global situation is challenging and people are dealing with heightened uncertainty. This uncertainty and the fear surrounding the COVID-19 virus are having a huge impact on the economy, work life and home life. With this, comes a shift in mindset and behaviour,” he says.
“It will be important for the business community and the government to work together on ways to accelerate activity, investment and confidence so we don’t lose momentum as we move into the most important economic phase of recovery and rebuild.”