As global demand for medical personal protective equipment (PPE) dominated the health care system in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, a local entrepreneur came up with an idea and a plan.
Mike Hambalek, a long-time entrepreneur in the Cranbrook area, started up Caliper Safety Inc. as a family venture with his five grown children, manufacturing medical-grade face masks at his home workshop just north the city.
After nearly one year of research, retrofitting a workshop space and setting up manufacturing equipment without any instruction or technical manuals, Caliper Safety Inc. is now capable of producing 1.2 million medical masks a month at full capacity.
“We got started with the idea of helping after COVID-19 started, because we saw how badly PPE was needed in Canada and how much of it failed Canadian standards,” said Hambalek.
“After reading how many millions of offshore face masks our government and large companies had purchased and how many millions had failed medical testing, we decided that we wanted to make a premium face mask that passes all Canadian medical specifications so we can keep Canadians safe and at an affordable price.”
Mask samples were sent off to a lab in Ontario for testing and the results demonstrated that they passed the ASTM (American Society of Testing and Materials) F2100 Level 1 and ASTM F2100 Level 2 medical quality.
Caliper Safety Inc. is now in the process of applying for a Medical Device Establishment License (MDEL), which will allow it to sell the masks as medical devices for use in Canada. Receiving that MDEL license will also help with sales to medical institutions and government organizations.
Hambalek says local support has been overwhelming, with distribution at local retailers in Cranbrook and Nelson in the Kootenay region. Additionally, the company is selling direct to businesses across North America who need masks for customers and employees.
With the idea sparked last spring, it took a few months, two business plans and hundreds of hours researching everything possible about a surgical-style medical mask, before securing funding with Community Futures – East Kootenay.
While financing was approved, there were other challenges to work through, including soaring prices for material costs as the pandemic became the global focus last summer, however, the company was able to work through those issues with equipment and material suppliers in order to keep the selling price lower.
While waiting on equipment to arrive last summer, one garage bay in a large workshop was renovated into a a medical clean room, as well as an office and lunch room area. Eventually, two full 40-foot shipping containers showed up and the company went to work installing the equipment and setting up a production system.
Much of the equipment is extremely technical, and came with little instruction from the manufacturers or included instruction manuals written in a foreign language. Additionally, rural internet speeds caused some issues, as watching blurry YouTube videos or video-conferencing with the manufacturers proved to be challenging.
“Lack of training manuals has definitely been our Achilles heel as the factory couldn’t send anyone to do the install and set-up,” Hambalek said. “It has definitely been a steep learning curve.”
Hambalek and his son, Bruno, were able to work through those challenges after lots of troubleshooting and trial and error, eventually producing not just the masks, but also their own instruction manuals and training videos. The family business also includes sons Corey and Christopher and daughters Milana and Melissa, along with their spouses, Steve and Lloyd, respectively, and Hambalek’s wife, Laura.
“We have learned beyond what we thought we ever could, as every day there is something new to learn,” said Hambalek. “This is truly a family business as every member of our family contributes in their own way.”
Anyone wishing to order masks or seeking more information about the company can visit the Caliper Safety Inc website or call (250) 977-3223.
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