The motivation for the founders of two Penn-affiliated start-ups addressing COVID-19 related challenges is personal. For those risking their lives in the hectic halls of health systems and nursing homes, Project Shields—an entrepreneurial non-profit—is producing personal protective equipment (PPE), and Clove—a sneaker start-up—is making stylish, functional shoes for healthcare heroes.
With a deep bench of Penn graduates spanning three decades, Project Shields is run by a group of entrepreneurs who paused their own start-ups to begin producing PPE for healthcare workers during COVID-19.
“We launched a start-up and began making PPE in one week,” said Evan Weinstein, ENG’19. Weinstein joined Michael Wong, WH’19, winner of the 2019 President’s Innovation Prize, and Tiffany Yau, C’18, SP2’19, in the creation of Project Shields. “People’s lives are at stake, and we have the ability to help,” said Wong.
The project was born over a casual conversation in a hallway at the Pennovation Center. When the COVID-19 pandemic sent shock waves through the supply chain, Weinstein and Wong realized that their materials and equipment—plastic and 3D printers—could help save lives. Serial entrepreneur John Gamba, C’92, the Director of Innovative Programs at Catalyst at Penn GSE, rounded out the group. “I’m the old guy,” he said.
The plastic shields that Project Shields manufactures include a NIH-approved 3D-printed visor. “In the beginning, we were sleeping next to the printers,” said Wong. As a non-profit, the group is 100% donor-driven through tax-deductible gifts and in-person volunteers. Recently, Project Shields got an unexpected fundraising boost from the Penn Club of Southwest Florida. “A significant number of alumni stepped up,” said Gamba. However, the team continues to seek outside aid. To date, Project Shields has shipped over 50,000 face shields to 30 states, including locally to the Penn Medicine health system.
When Joe Ammon, WG’19, moved to Philadelphia in 2017, his wife Tamara, a nurse, inspired him to design a more comfortable sneaker for healthcare workers. “We talked about the sneaker silhouette, what she liked in a shoe, and what would work for other nurses,” said Ammon. He dove into the details—studying shoes, reading everything he could get his hands on, and cold-calling industry veterans.
A pivotal moment for what would become Clove occurred in the spring of 2018. Stuart Weitzman, W’63, the award-winning designer, footwear icon, and namesake of the Stuart Weitzman School of Design, was speaking at a student session as an Executive-in-Residence with Wharton’s Jay H. Baker Retailing Center. Afterwards, Ammon met for a scheduled chat with the renowned shoe guru.
“That was the turning point,” said Ammon. “Shoes are an old school, exclusive industry, and Stuart gave me the confidence and credibility to follow my dream.” Weitzman was impressed right away by the idea behind Clove. “Joe told me his sneakers had a $4 billion market—I was floored,” said Weitzman. “Why shouldn’t health care workers want to wear nice-looking shoes, why force them into clogs? We talked about design, shoe construction, and marketing—it’s exciting to connect one-on-one with students.”
Determined to design a good-looking sneaker that was safe, comfortable, and sanitary, Ammon traveled to trade shows around the globe. He landed on a prototype and launched the business in 2019. Recently in response to the pandemic, Clove donated over $50,000 in product to healthcare workers across the country, including the Penn Health system.
“We don’t pretend our shoes can stop COVID-19,” said Ammon. “But if we can help people feel comfortable during long hospital shifts, that means a lot to us.”
Today, Clove is a five-person operation with headquarters in Philadelphia, outside consultants, and an ad agency on the payroll. Of Stuart Weitzman’s mentorship, Ammon said, “It’s an incredible example of how seriously Penn alumni take the responsibility of helping each other. I hope I can do the same for another alum someday.”
As COVID-19 continues to disrupt everyday life, these are outstanding examples of the power of Penn alumni and the ways they are using their knowledge for good.