COVID created this Kelowna company but will Canada keep it going? | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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COVID created this Kelowna company but will Canada keep it going?

At the Breathe Medical Manufacturing plant in Kelowna
Image Credit: Submitted/Breathe Medical Manufacturing

Kelowna’s Breathe Medical Manufacturing went from 0 to 180 employees in just five months last year to help replenish the frightening shortage of personal protective equipment in the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It did that, first of all, by winning a federal contract to produce 46 million medical masks. Then it set up a production plant in Kelowna last May to get the job done.

READ MORE: New medical manufacturer bringing jobs to Kelowna, much-needed supplies to frontline workers

Those 46 million masks have now been delivered so the next step for Breathe is to find new customers and keep the workforce employed.

But, in order to do that, it's also vital for governments to rethink their buying practices if they want a permanent domestic manufacturing base for PPE, Rob Balazs, the company president and CEO, told

“Is it sustainable to manufacture in Canada? 100 per cent it is,” Balazs told “Is it going to cost a little bit more? Possibly. But why not spend that money at home where it goes right back into the economy?

“The federal government needs to think about this long-term. When you spend that money offshore, you have not invested a penny back into your country. But when you spend it at home, look at how many jobs are created. Look at how many tax dollars are generated back into the economy. You’ve got to do the math on that. So, is it actually costing us more? No, not really. It isn’t.”

With the company’s major contract completed, Breathe is shifting into sales mode, connecting with health authorities and governments throughout Canada and trying to break into the U.S. market.

Balazs has also joined with two other larger mask manufacturers to form the Canadian Association of Medical Mask Manufacturers that has two key issues it is focusing on.

One is ensuring quality supplies and the other is to make sure Canada is never caught short again.

“Canada was not a manufacturer of medical grade masks,” Balazs said. “A lot of it was coming from sources offshore, Asia predominantly. The pandemic revealed a huge gap in the marketplace and we were, quite frankly, caught with our pants down. We didn’t have the product we needed for our front line workers so our Prime Minister put out the plea and encouraged people to step up to the plate and see what we can do to take care of Canadians and we’ve done that.”

Breathe may not be the largest such manufacturer in Canada but it is one of the biggest, with 20 lines that, when needed, can ramp up to make 800,000 masks a day within four weeks, he said.

Everything is made to the international American Society of Testing and Materials (ASTM) standard, something that was not always the case with foreign suppliers earlier in the pandemic.

“A lot of the products that came in didn’t meet the standards,” Balazs said. “The issues were, like, fit and function, where they had a lot of issues with ear loops missing, nose wires not in place, just a lot of physical issues. Then, when you go through the tests for the bacteria, particle filtrations, all the different standards where they didn’t hit the threshold. So, a lot of products failed.”

That meant money was spent on useless masks with no real chance of getting that money back, he said.

Product prices have fluctuated over the course of the pandemic with a lot of gouging going on earlier when there was a lack of supply and now countries like China are cutting prices and dumping products on the rest of the world. The cost of shipping has tripled and shipments of material from overseas can now take two and a half months where they used to take four weeks, making the job all the more challenging.

Even though Breathe masks may be more expensive on the front end, the benefits to the Canadian economy balance that out, Balazs said.

“How much did the Canadian government pay on CERB and wage subsidies because of cutbacks?” he asked. “Why not use your health spend to invigorate the economy? Let’s send this back into the economy by supporting the ones who have invested millions and millions and tens of millions to set this up so we can be a sustainable industry that can take care of Canada and its consumers.”

He pointed out that Breathe created 180 jobs – many of them local hires of people laid off from industries that had to cut staff but also skilled workers from others parts of the province – during the pandemic.

“That’s taking care of 180 people, plus their families," he said. "We've been able to help them pay their bills while other people were losing their jobs."

Breathe also has a research department where they’re working on developing things like masks for MRI rooms that can’t have any magnetic wires to bend around noses and face shields that don’t fog.

So far, it has been able to maintain most of its work force as the company takes time to build some inventory but it will take a strong and successful sales effort to bring in new business to help ensure Canada maintains a viable mask manufacturing sector well into the future.

“If you look at what portion of the federal budget is made up of health spending, it’s a large amount,” Balazs said. “I’m saying, let's use that asset portion to make sure we spend it at home where we need to take care of manufacturing and we need to make sure that money goes back into tax dollars.

“Look at the deficit that was created by the pandemic. The only way to recover that in the long term is to get the economy moving again so you need leaders that are thinking long term. They need to be entrepreneurial, and they need to be thinking of the future. They need to be thinking, if they want to have a harvest in the future, they need to plant the seeds today.”

To contact a reporter for this story, email Rob Munro or call 250-808-0143 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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