‘This is grind time’

Richard Xu (’18) and his team collect medical supplies for hospitals during pandemic

JMU News
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As a student at JMU, Richard Xu built a 3D printer at X-Labs, a maker space in JMU's Lakeview Hall.

SUMMARY: JMU alumnus Richard Xu (’18), a 23-year-old entrepreneur, and his team have worked collaboratively to distribute more than 100,000 masks to assist medical facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

By Jazmine Otey (’20)

For the last three weeks, 23-year-old entrepreneur Richard Xu (’18) has stayed up all night sending emails and making calls to request medical masks from vendors in southeast Asia. After the masks arrive, free samples are distributed to labs and doctors’ offices in need of them. If they’re satisfied with the supplies, medical workers can place an order at a reduced price.  

So far, Xu and his team have worked collaboratively to distribute more than 100,000 masks to assist medical facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Everybody wants to be an entrepreneur, but no one wants to grind for it,” said Xu, a former Dukes football player. “Sacrificing a couple hours of sleep to protect a couple hundred doctors’ lives, I’ll do that any day. I’m trying to help these people out. It doesn’t matter if I lose a couple of hours of sleep. This is grind time.”

The overall process has been a team effort. The idea to help source masks for medical facilities manifested during a Zoom video call with Xu and a network of individuals with connections nationwide. The group met mostly through JMU X-Labs, a transdisciplinary program that encourages students to resist easy solutions and be fervent about innovation. 

Many of the contributors are also a part of Xu’s hardware startup business, Vulcan Machine Co.

Before COVID-19 surfaced, the team had been networking with factories in China to source materials for a computer numerically controlled machine Xu is in the process of building for Vulcan Machine Co. When the pandemic hit, the team readily shifted gears and utilized its resources and contacts to find a solution to help thwart the pervasive virus.

At first, the group planned to make masks. Instead, Xu applied what he learned from JMU X-Labs. He took a proactive approach, working with Chinese factories to ship the masks directly.

“When you go to X-Labs, the focus switches from thinking about the best solution to implementing a solution that will work right now,” Xu said. “In my mind, if I can get a solution by the end of the week, it’s a lot better than thinking about creating the perfect solution.”

Xu’s week consists of shipping days and sourcing days (and nights).

Sourcing days start at noon when Xu’s team members tell him how many medical supplies are needed. He then compiles a list of possible vendors and begins contacting them through email and WhatsApp Messenger. Once the list is narrowed down, he begins writing proposals.

By 6 p.m., Xu begins calling vendors to request supplies. During the process, he looks at photos taken by the vendors, along with brochures, to ensure the masks are of good quality. Sourcing days typically last until 6 a.m. the next day. 

For shipping days, Xu wakes up at 10 a.m., packs his truck and delivers the supplies. He finishes around 2 or 3 p.m., then his team members call him to notify him about more medical facilities that need help sourcing medical supplies.

Fred Briggs, an adjunct professor with JMU X-Labs, is also a part of Xu’s team. He has contributed by talking to doctors, delivering samples to hospitals and collecting orders. Briggs said that sourcing masks could truly have “a real impact on medical institutions in this time of need.”

“The hospitals have money to afford masks, but they have trouble sourcing them and we’re trying to help fill the gap,” Briggs said. “As we try to source the PPE, Richard works on trying to reduce the costs. The larger the order, the lower we can get the cost and the less it will cost for everyone.”

Xu believes that people need to take the COVID-19 pandemic seriously because of the strain it’s putting on the American health care system.

“It’s not designed to handle this scale yet,” Xu said. “And I think the most rewarding part is that the masks are going to doctors and nurses [to help them] actually protect themselves and not have to worry, so they can make sure patients get better.”

“I like the satisfaction of finding these things and handing them off to people who are in need of the stuff and seeing the look on their faces,” Xu said. “They’re like, ‘Wow, we can finally use this stuff and we don’t have to treat it like it’s gold.’”

If doctors are in need of medical supplies, they can send an email to chris@vulcanmachineco.com.

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Published: Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Last Updated: Wednesday, November 1, 2023

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