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How Arizona Bioindustry Association Members Are Fighting COVID-19 From Multiple Angles

The  Arizona Bioindustry Association supports a variety of organizations across Arizona. From fashion to AI technology, these unrelated businesses now have one common goal: fighting COVID-19.  

AZBio’s main goal is to build a life science industry in the state. The association has over 250 member-companies where it acts as a resource center and a networking machine. Joan Koerber-Walker, president and CEO of the association, says the industry is not only looking to fight the pandemic of today but is also preparing for future ones. She says for example the PPE supply chain. 

“When we look at how we respond in the future we have to think about what our supply chain looks like. And so medical countermeasures are not just the drugs and the tests but also the supplies that our medical professionals will need,” Walker said.

As a result, some new members joining the association are not your typical life science organizations.

“We’re seeing people that are in the medical industry and people come into the medical industry that were not there before. We’re also seeing other industries step up,” Walker said.

"We’re seeing people that are in the medical industry and people come into the medical industry that were not there before. We’re also seeing other industries step up." — Joan Koerber-Walker, Arizona Bioindustry Association CEO

One such industry is fashion. Specifically an Arizona-based fashion incubator known as  FABRIC

“A group of fashion designers in Tempe, Arizona started to make a completely different kind of gown,” Walker said. "You won’t see this one on the runway.” 

FABRIC, a conglomerate of nonprofit and for profit fashion companies under one roof, has committed to making a half a million  reusable isolation gowns by the end of the summer. Co-founder Sherri Barry says they are taking on thousands of local orders and they had just recently hit the 10,000 mark. 

“And the whole project is amazing because these are reusable gowns it’s not something that the hospital systems were using. The reusable gowns really help mitigate the shortage cause one gown can be washed 100 times,” Barry said.

But this four-year-old organization had to make big changes when they initially began making the gowns back in March. 

“We don’t normally make thousands of something,” Angela Johnson, the other co-founder of FABRIC, said. “Our model is set up to make small quantities. We basically are a fashion incubator that helps a small brand get started. And so we focus on getting them prototypes and manufacturing really small quantities so that they have some units just to test their market with.” 

As of May they are at full production. So with the help of Arizona Commerce Authority, which connected them with Walker at AZBio, “She was just a godsend,” Johnson said, they were able to put together a  GoFundMe page and raise nearly $300,000, navigate the FDA and set up four production lines with nearly triple the staff on them. 

“I’ve gone from having 24 employees to now having 68 employees, most of them are working full time on the line," Barry said.

FABRIC has sent 4,500 gowns to the Navajo Nation and is fulfilling orders to local hospital systems. But, they are not the only AZBio member helping the community with supplies.

An older member is  AdviNOW Medical, an AI technology supplier that hopes to enhance the doctor/patient experience and also make patient intake more efficient. James Bates is the CEO and founder of the company. He says now that COVID-19 has rendered many doctor visits online, this technology is more in demand than ever before.

“Today patients are afraid to go to the doctor because they’re afraid that people who have COVID-19 will be in the doctor’s office and spreading it to them,” Bates said. 

The way the technology works is a patient and a chatbot will discuss the symptoms and other ailments that the patient is feeling. Bates says the system uses its database to predict possible diagnoses and send the patient to the right facility and a real doctor, either to meet online or in person depending on the situation. 

“What AdviNOW is, is we are the technology that is beyond telemedicine. This is now augmented with artificial intelligence to create a super doctor that is on the other side of telemedicine," Bates said. 

The company has partners nation-wide, mostly located in Arizona. Right now they’re in 18 clinics but are in discussion with many more facilities and they hope to expand to over 1,000. AzBio continues to bring medical researchers, and companies that were previously, and seemingly, unrelated to life science, together.

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Jill Ryan joined KJZZ in 2020 as a morning reporter, and she is currently a field correspondent and Morning Edition producer.