A Kitchener-based company wasn’t planning on shipping their respirators to over 100 countries this year, but like most businesses, they’ve adapted in the face of the pandemic.
O2 Canada is the local start-up manufacturing some of the most highly regarded and sought-after personal protective equipment in the industry. Their sales have skyrocketed since mid-March, as O2’s employees work countless hours to keep up with demand.
Ashly Knox is the Chief Marketing Officer at O2 Canada, where the company grew from seven employees to over 40 in the face of increased demand for their respirators. While the workload has been astronomical, their company is motivated by providing life-saving equipment to those who need it most amid the COVID-19 outbreak.
“It’s the main motivator,” Knox said. “The hours people are working right now is insane. That’s not motivated by the pursuit of profit. It's motivated by the pursuit of helping people. That was sort of why the company came to be.”
Prior to the pandemic, O2 Canada was manufacturing 30,000 to 40,000 respirators on a monthly basis across their manufacturing facilities. Once COVID-19 took hold, O2’s production has jumped tenfold, as they supply 300,000 to 400,000 respirators every month.
As face masks become part of the new normal in society, O2 Canada provides the next step up from a simple surgical mask or cloth mask. More in line with an N95 respirator, O2’s respirators provide a tight seal with medical-grade silicone and filter out particles at 0.1 microns and above, while filtering out 95 percent of airborne pathogens.
These respirators just so happen to have emerged at the perfect time when personal safety and air quality has become paramount.
The product was initially developed by the company’s co-founders Peter Whitby Jr. and Rich Szasz back in 2015 after a business trip to China, where they experienced the devastating effects of severe air pollution first hand. They sought to build the best respirator possible.
In doing so, O2 Canada was ahead of the curve in terms of building a respirator that could stand the rigours of an impending pandemic. They could never have expected the surge in interest in their products, but the last four months have provided validation for O2’s tireless work into the mask and respirator realm.
“It’s definitely a sense of validation, especially when we hear frontline workers or different folks who get the product and say: ‘This thing is the best thing I’ve ever used,’” Knox said. “The reality is it was designed to deal with air pollution, but because it was designed so well, this is why we’ve had 500 different professions use this mask, because it is so good.”
So far, the response from frontline workers and those in the medical field has been overwhelmingly positive regarding O2’s respirators. Their products are more than capable of being used in medical environments, but the company is developing a respirator designed specifically for health care workers.
In addition to the respirator for the medical field, O2 Canada has a tactical respirator in research and development to be used by the military and law enforcement. These respirators will limit lead inhalation, which military and law enforcement members are exposed to after they discharge weapons.
O2’s reach stretches across the globe, but as a Kitchener-based company whose entire workforce is based locally and whose products are developed in Waterloo Region, they’re hoping other local businesses make O2 part of their back-to-work program for returning employees.
As a special offer to Kitchener and Waterloo-based businesses, O2 Canada will supply one free respirator for every two purchased through their website. “A lot of businesses are getting back to work, so we want to help power that,” Knox said. “It would be great if a lot of local businesses are wearing a local product.”
Faced with an ever-changing economy, countless companies had to pivot and revamp their business model to gain some semblance of normalcy and stay in business. Meanwhile, O2 didn’t need to re-invent themselves, they’re merely trying to keep up with demand.Knox iterated they’ve been making a world-class product for years now, it’s just taken a global pandemic for some to realize it. “This is all we do. We only make respirators,” Knox said. “We’ve been making them for years and we’re here in Kitchener. We’ve probably been flying under the radar.”