Dispatches from Our Own Wisconsin: Greg Wright of CREATE Portage County
Greg Wright, executive director, and Chris Klesmith, project activator, make up the team at CREATE Portage County, which operates an innovation center in Stevens Point known as the IDEA Center. They run a community and economic development organization that accelerates creativity, connection, and collaboration to advance vibrant and welcoming communities. Together, Greg and Chris take care of all the supply chain, grant writing, volunteer management, and distribution needs. Now, they have transformed the IDEA Center’s space into a 3D printing facility to create high-need medical equipment for healthcare organizations. The Print Team for this includes lead printers and designers Barry Calnan and Cory Coulthurst, with support from Brody Rice (Brody Designs), Ricky Miller (McMillan Memorial Library), and Matt Sonnenberg (UW-Stevens Point). The IDEA Center was a host for the 2019 Wisconsin Idea Seminar where Greg Wright led participants through an interactive creative brainstorming session to sketch ideas for riverside community place-making.
We caught up with Greg to ask a few questions about how the IDEA Center is responding to a local need for 3D-printed personal protective equipment.
Have you had to adapt your daily operations in response to COVID-19? If so, how? In more typical times, CREATE runs an innovation center we call the IDEA Center. That space incorporates various maker spaces, including a 3D printing lab. We shut down all other uses of the space once the safer-at-home order was announced and restructured the space to maximize our 3D printing capacity. As of today (Friday, April 24), we have delivered more than 3,000 face shields to hospitals, local governments, police and fire departments, dental clinics, and assisted living facilities. We know our supplies are being used in at least 31 hospitals across four states.
Your IDEA Center’s stable of 3D printers has recently been harnessed to produce personal protective equipment for local hospitals in central Wisconsin. How did this idea spark? We learned about the use of 3D printing from watching the COVID-19 crisis hit Italy. That early access to information was helpful. We had some time to think through how we could pull off something similar before the crisis made its way to Wisconsin. The IDEA Center had four 3D printers, but only one of them was a good fit for this project. Within a few days we had 13 printers in use — donated from educational institutions, businesses, and individuals across Central WI — and we purchased an additional 10 with a grant from Marshfield Clinic. We also got a grant from the Advancing a Healthier Wisconsin Endowment that enabled us to purchase a laser cutter. This significantly increased our production capacity. Running 24/7, we put out about 150 face shields per day at our peak.
Are there ways that you are collaborating with UW System schools during this time of uncertainty? The UW-Stevens Point has been a great partner on this project. The UW-Stevens Point library loaned us one of the first 3D printers we started using, and one of their librarians has been a part of our 5-person print team, keeping the machines running 24 hours a day. We also sent supplies early to researchers at UW-Madison, who tested them and shared our production capacity with other groups in need. Other UW-System groups helped us identify proper supplies. UW-Extension employee Jeremy Solin helped us activate volunteers to help with assembly, and Midstate Technical College also provided equipment and support.
How have you seen your community come together in response to COVID-19? How does that work animate the Wisconsin Idea? CREATE, in many ways, is our contemporary adaptation of the Wisconsin Idea. We consider ourselves a new take on community and economic development, believing that communities thrive when they activate local people to accomplish creative projects. We “develop” community in hopes of connecting people–to ideas, to resources, and to one another.
We were able to make this pivot quickly because of that groundwork. Within hours of announcing the goal, we had about a dozen 3D printers on-site, donated from various partners, and a team of people with printing experience working together to figure out production. We activated business partners like Gamber Johnson, Skyward, and the Worth Company to help us find and prep supplies.
One of my favorite stories from this adventure is our elastic sourcing. If you’ve been following the PPE shortage, you know that it has also increased demand for key supplies. Elastic specifically is hard to come by right now. We put an order in right away and had it recalled shortly after. We tried another vendor that emailed us a few days later to say that order had been sent to the government instead. We put out more than 1,000 face shields to hospitals before our first shipment of elastic arrived because people across the community pulled what elastic they had out of their sewing kits and left it on their front steps for us to pick up and use.
The speed at which we were able to identify and meet the need is entirely a byproduct of the community we had built before this crisis. We activated people and partnerships that enabled us to move faster than traditional systems of production to meet this need.
Do you have any advice for others on keeping spirits up during times like these? While this time is undeniably tragic and stressful, we have also heard from so many people that they have never felt more pride in their community. We hope people see that. We are working with greater collaboration than ever in hopes of meeting a common goal that protects the quality of life for all people. There is a great lesson in that. We hope we can maintain this sense of togetherness well after the COVID-19 crisis is over.
Dispatches from Our Own Wisconsin is a profile series that showcases fresh stories, observations, and insight from our Wisconsin Idea Seminar partners who are facing, engaging, and addressing critical issues in their communities.