How did you spend your summer vacation when you were 16?
Edward Aguilar, Shourya Seth, and their fellow founders of ProjectParalink spent theirs creating a remarkable production and distribution network for personal protective equipment (PPE) that is outpacing FEMA in Georgia, Texas, and Florida. Earlier this week, their network delivered their 1 millionth item.
How did five teenagers from Alpharetta, Georgia, become some of the nation’s largest PPE distributors? Ingenuity, hard work, and some help from friends. This is the story of their summer vacation.
Coronavirus prompts a surprising pivot
Aguilar, Seth, and their colleagues had noticed a problem at their high school: teachers didn’t have time to go out for lunch, and apps that delivered added a hefty extra cost. Together, the students created a food delivery program as a chance to learn about the technology while helping their educators.
On the day of the launch, 80 teachers signed up for the food delivery service. That same afternoon, the first Covid-19 report came out in their district.
“No one was really taking it seriously,” says Aguilar. Until Seth got a call from his cousin, a doctor in Atlanta. Seth’s cousin had been wearing the same N95 mask for a week. The horror stories of overrun and under-resourced hospital systems hadn’t hit the news yet, but the teens could see that it would.
That same night, they shut down their food delivery platform and decided to deliver PPE instead. They collected donations of cleaning wipes and protective equipment and made a first donation of 100 units to a local EMS unit.
Seeing potential to help, the team formed ProjectParalink, with Aguilar as CEO and Seth as Chief Operating Officer. The food delivery software, which uses maps to identify the most efficient routes, was useful in mapping routes for picking up donations and delivering them to hospitals. Knowing they needed to source more PPE in order to deliver it to the point of need, Paralink partnered with Atlanta Beats Covid, a program of Decatur Makers, a nonprofit that helped them make community connections. Paralink’s donated software became a useful alternative to costly enterprise programs.
Some teens might have stopped there and gone back to the swimming pool. But Paralink’s founders had seen an opportunity: traditional supply chains weren’t working during the pandemic. Localizing the supply chain could provide a solution.
“The virus kept expanding, so we needed to as well,” said Aguilar.
Working with support from professors at Georgia Tech and MIT and major companies like Coca Cola and UPS, Paralink located individuals with 3D printers and sent them the specs to print face shields and other PPE. Printing one shield band at a time was too slow, so they reengineered the specs to print 12 at a time.
Today, customers can place orders for the PPE they need; Paralink’s software matches the order with at-home printers and factory manufacturers, then routes a force of volunteer delivery drivers to pick up the completed order and deliver it to hospitals and health care systems, with just a few days turnaround.
The teens are meeting a market need, but they haven’t taken a dime from the organization. They’re motivated to help because they know it makes a difference. Seth is inspired to help because of his cousin, the Atlanta doctor. “Doctors can deal with the surge, but they’re dealing with a disaster every single day. Lessening the effect even by a small amount can make all the difference for a doctor,” he says.
How Paralink is changing ideas of supply change management
Paralink is succeeding because of help from its friends: generous donations from corporations and individuals, and technical insight from experienced academics and professionals.
Karthik Ramachandran, an associate professor of operations management at Georgia Tech, is one of those friends, but he almost missed the opportunity to help. “I was about to dismiss them, thinking it was a high schooler asking for an internship,” he recalls. But instead, he set up a phone call with the Paralink team and walked away impressed.
“They are very committed,” he says. “It’s easy to have an idea; it takes a lot to execute.”
They are also defying traditional supply chain management logic. Ramachandran notes that some of the world’s foremost supply chain management experts are located at global companies like Coca Cola, Home Depot, and UPS, just miles from where Paralink got its start.
“But nobody was really thinking that supply chains matter for protective equipment. And a pandemic is dramatically bad for the supply chain, because everything is cut off,” says Ramachandran.
Typical supply chain management looks for efficiencies: one supplier who can distribute reliably across the globe at the lowest cost. In a pandemic, like Covid-19, the reliance on single sources for supplies means the chain can easily be disrupted.
“With these guys, the solution is very different. It’s a democratic, collective action to solve the problem.”
Instead of relying on single sources, Paralink sources hyper-local manufacturing solutions, often a 3D printer in someone’s garage, and pairs these small manufacturers with local needs for equipment. Ramachandran says this more distributed process is an alternative to traditional supply chain management that may reshape how some operations are managed.
“There is widespread acknowledgement now that American manufacturing is not what it used to be,” says Ramachandran. “But that’s looking at the raw count of how many people are employed in manufacturing and how much is produced. The U.S. is interesting though, in that people are distributed; they don’t all live in cities. It’s interesting to ask, ‘What are the right supply chains for these environments?’”
It’s just an educated speculation, Ramachandran says, but Paralink may be pointing toward a more pandemic-proof supply chain approach for the future.
Growing beyond the Coronavirus to take on emergency management
Senior year of high school starts next week for the teenage entrepreneurs who founded Paralink. They’re already considering how to handle schoolwork, SAT prep, and managing a rapidly expanding organization. Despite the busyness, they don’t plan to slow down. They want to rethink the way the U.S. prepares for emergencies.
Paralink hopes to create local solutions for the stockpiling of resources for hurricanes and other emergencies. They’re developing new software features that uses forecasting predictions from virologists and other experts to anticipate a community’s needs one to four weeks in advance.
“Our long-term goal is to be a disaster relief replacement,” says Aguilar. “We want to create new technology to fight issues, open AI for disasters. We want to do that in a lot more places than just PPE.”
They also want to inspire others to do the same; their software is open source and available to anyone that wants to follow their lead. “Our biggest hurdle is to convince people they can do this themselves,” says Aguilar.
These are ambitious dreams for five high school seniors, but they spent their summer vacation making it happen.
Find more stories and resources for values-driven leaders here, including executive education webinars.