From mining to medical devices: ventilator breaths new life into business

Tuesday, 01 December 2020

Denise Cullen photo
Denise Cullen
Freelance Journalist

    When mining services manufacturer Gekko Systems pivoted to make the only regulator-approved Australian ventilator to treat patients with COVID-19, it led to a business restructure and spin-off medical devices startup.

    As a mining services manufacturer, Gekko Systems may not seem the most obvious source for lifesaving medical equipment, but chair Elizabeth Lewis-Gray MAICD points out that its core technologies — hydraulics, pneumatics and control systems — are exactly what are needed in ventilators, too.

    “We make enormous pieces of kit that are shipped in sometimes as many as 200 containers around the world,” she says. “So to make something like a ventilator, [while] small, is relatively simple in its design in the scheme of things — although the regulation around it is not.”

    Lewis-Gray’s husband, technical director Sandy Gray, worked on the brief from his backyard shed.

    It was, she says, an exciting engineering and design challenge, but also an opportunity to serve the close-knit community that helped fund and support the ventilator’s development. “To feel like we could do something positive, rather than be the victims of what was happening, made our experience of COVID-19 a lot more positive.”

    Gekko Systems is the first — and at this stage, only — organisation nationally given regulatory permission to manufacture an Australian-designed ventilator for COVID-19. At the time of writing, production on the GeVentor was due to commence. Developed closely with the local medical community, the product has many attractive design features and is particularly easy to operate, with the capacity for use in remote and regional areas.

    There is potential for international sales in countries like Indonesia, the Philippines and Bangladesh, where equipment can be harder to find, and the machine’s rugged design is a plus.

    Lewis-Gray attributes a large part of the organisation’s agility to the fact that it is a privately owned company. Established in 1996, its four-strong board includes Lewis-Gray, Sandy Gray, Tasmanian entrepreneur Dale Elphinstone AO FAICD and Melbourne solicitor Peter Hansen GAICD. “We were able to make decisions really quickly,” she says, “because it wasn’t about financial returns; it was about what we could do to address critical health challenges in Australia and globally.”

    Working with regulator the Therapeutic Goods Administration involved a whole new set of risks and protocols. Given the additional risks around the production of medical devices, a separate startup, Gekko Medical, was established. “This was important in terms of managing the risk — not just making sure that we didn’t hurt people, but also that we didn’t put the [rest of the] business at risk,” says Lewis-Gray.

    In March, as other parts of the business slowed down, Gekko Systems was restructured to allow founders Lewis-Gray and her husband to step back from their operating roles and devolve greater responsibility to the business’s general managers to drive the performance of their divisions. Lewis-Gray relinquished her role as Gekko Systems’ managing director to Andrew Edmondston, who has stepped up as CEO “and is doing an outstanding job”, she says. “In some ways, it was good timing, because it was time to hand over to the next generation of leaders in the business,” she says.

    Regulatory relief

    Much red tape was cut during the pandemic, allowing electronic signatures on documents, for example.

    70% of directors identify corporate reporting requirements as the aspect of their business most affected by “red tape”, followed by workplace health/safety (66%) and preparing/paying taxes (60%).

    Source: AICD Director Sentiment Index: Research Findings Second Half 2020

    “Now that I’m out of the day-to-day operations of the business, I’m super-excited by how much more value I can add, because I have more time to think and really connect with key players in our market, and to develop a deeper understanding of the strategic challenges and opportunities of the businesses that we operate in.”

    Although getting to grips with a new product and industry was time-consuming and challenging, Lewis-Gray says the exercise has changed how the company, and even Ballarat, thinks about itself — how it has world-leading capabilities within its ecosystem and other opportunities that might be out there.

    “There’s a lot more paperwork and process involved in developing devices,” she says. “But it was very beneficial to improving our own systems and learning new skills, particularly in terms of the robustness of designing and testing products, new quality-control protocols and applying many lean startup techniques, especially around rapid feedback from the local medical community.

    “We were blown away with the capability available in Ballarat when we needed it... facilitated by the connections from [non-government organisation] the Committee for Ballarat. Our corporate mantra of ‘smarter together’ really provided the cultural conditions that supported this success,” says Lewis-Gray. “Bringing in tighter controls around the medical device development has strengthened the business as a whole. Now we’re commencing manufacturing units for the Victorian government and engaging with other potential buyers of the GeVentor globally — a whole new opportunity for learning.”

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