On March 24, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp called for businesses in the state to help with the production of what he deemed essential products to combat the growing COVID-19 crisis.
The list from the Georgia Department of Economic Development included N-95 masks or their equivalent, air purifying machines, face shields, hair covers, hand sanitizer, hospital beds, gloves, negative pressure machines, no-touch thermometers, safety goggles, sanitation units, sanitizing spray, sanitizing wipes, shoe covers, surgical masks, Tyvek suits and ventilators.
One of those items jumped off the list as the executives at High Performance Product Engineering in Columbus combed it.
“We looked at this and said, ‘Hey, we could make hand sanitizer,'” said HPPE Director of Operations Brian Burr.
HPPE has been in business since 2013. They make biopolymers, an organic substance used in making capsules for the pharmaceutical industry and products for the oil and gas industry.
In mid-March a company that had never made a bottle of hand sanitizer started to try and figure it out. They needed ethanol, the key ingredient in the formula. But they had the equipment and processes to make the finished product.
“The virus was just getting hyped and started, when we found out how bad it was,” Burr said. “I don’t think we had even thought about this until we saw Gov. Kemp and what his request were for different products and this was one of them. We could help out. We could make this. I don’t think we had a thought about this in February.”
What was not even on the radar three months ago is now a product line.
They are producing it in 6,500-gallon batches. It takes a day to create a batch, but that process is being refined so two batches can be made per shift.
HPPE is deal with a third-party vendor on one of the larger orders. They are also in confidential negotiations on other orders that will reach millions of gallons over the length of the contract.
“I don’t think we had an idea it would start coming in as big as it has,” Burr said. “We are glad to help. So, we answered the call from Gov. Kemp. Sent our paperwork in. And we are off and running.”
The company had about 50 employees when the outbreak began and has had to add eight workers as sanitizer became an additional product line.
“The thought was we would just make some in the tanks we had available,” Burr said. “But once we started seeing — ‘Wow’ — there’s quite a bit of demand. People are coming to us. We got customers visiting every week to see what we are doing. Test the product. And then put orders in.”
In one of the cruel ironies of this COVID pandemic, a great need for the product was right across the street from the Schatulga Road plant.
Muscogee Manor nursing home had an outbreak of COVID-19. It and two other local facilities are operated by the Hospital Authority of Columbus. And they were out of sanitizer — and it was on backorder.
Hospital Authority President Frank Morast reach out to HPPE.
“When Frank called and said he was in a desperate situation,” Burr said. “Then, we immediately said, ‘We will make one for you. You can pick it up any time you want.’ We will make more for him at any time he needs it. It is really important and we are pretty proud of supporting the community with this product, something that’s so desperately needed.”
And the sanitizer business will not go away any time soon.
“It will be a business we can carry forward,” Burr said. “We have a huge expansion coming in terms of biopolymers and fermentation. It is still going to be our core business, but the way hand sanitizer is going, this will be a long term business. The usage of hand sanitizer is going to just explode. With all of the coronavirus situations that have happened across the country and across the world.”