Mask up: Prof launches PPE venture to meet need

Founder of America Care a local manufacturer of personal protective equipment (PPE) Hansheng Lei, center, visits with Director of Marketing and Small Business Development at Brownsville Commuity Improvement Corporation (BCIC) Nathan Burkhart, from left, along with America Care employees Jesus Garza, Maricela Garza and Jenni Castillo as they donate 20,000 face masks made at America Care in Brownsville. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald)
Founder of America Care a local manufacturer of personal protective equipment (PPE) Hansheng Lei visits along with America Care employees Jesus Garza, Maricela Garza and Jenni Castillo as they donate 20,000 face masks made at America Care in Brownsville to Brownsville Community Improvement Corporation (BCIC). (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald)

A computer science professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley in Brownsville responded to the nationwide shortage of personal protective equipment early in the COVID-19 pandemic by launching America Care, which is manufacturing disposable face masks in Brownsville.

Hansheng Lei did so with the help of the Brownsville Community Improvement Corporation, which helped him line up financing. America Care, a venture of America Instrument Inc., which Lei founded in 2011 to develop advanced equipment for industry, was one of the first recipients of a Brownsville Cares grant, part of the StartUp Texas COVID-19 relief grants offered through BCIC.

The program offers up to $10,000 in earnest money for businesses to secure a loan through the U.S. Small Business Administration. With the assistance from BCIC and the SBA, Lei set up an operation capable of producing 100,000 masks a day at his company’s headquarters.

Lei said he had the idea back in March when PPE was in short supply. He realized America Instrument — established to commercialize ideas springing from university research — had the technology and expertise in manufacturing to make masks, so Lei approached BCIC, which advised him on how to proceed and helped him make the necessary connections. On Aug. 20 America Care donated 20,000 of the masks to BCIC for businesses having difficulty finding sufficient quantities of PPE.

To date BCIC has helped bring in more than $5 million to the community through StartUp Texas and SBA grants. The grants have gone to more than 40 organizations providing services to Brownsville, helping more than 700 workers stay employed, according to BCIC.

Nathan Burkhart, BCIC director of marketing and small business development, said the best way to grow the local economy “is to find people who are already doing amazing things in your community and supporting them.”

“It’s great to see how even in the midst of a pandemic our small business community in Brownsville can innovate, adapt and thrive,” he said.

BCIC Executive Director Josh Mejia said his team is doing everything it can to support recovery and innovation for local small businesses.

“Partnerships like these are a vital part of our response to this pandemic,” he said.

Lei said the facility isn’t producing masks at full capacity yet but is still trying to get the word out about America Care and its manufacturing capabilities. Lei is targeting the domestic and international PPE market, and said his masks are high quality and priced competitively compared to PPE from China and other countries. The facility could easily ramp up to 1 million masks a day if there’s enough demand, he said.

“As long as we have the sales we can expand to that capacity,” Lei said.

His plan is for the company to continuing manufacturing PPE even when the pandemic is over.

“Even when the pandemic is gone we still can supply masks to hospitals, to doctors, to clinic,” Lei said. “Those places always need masks.”

Founder of America Care a local manufacturer of personal protective equipment (PPE) Hansheng Lei visits along with America Care employees Jesus Garza, Maricela Garza and Jenni Castillo as they donate 20,000 face masks made at America Care in Brownsville to Brownsville Community Improvement Corporation (BCIC). (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald)

He’d like to see more manufacturing in this country in general, he said.

“I think that the country should be encouraging more manufacturing in the United States,” Lei said. “That’s my hope. I hope the country, our region, can encourage manufacturing in the United States, so we don’t rely on imports too much.

“At the beginning of the pandemic the whole country was short on PPE. That’s a sad thing, to have a country that has advanced technology but we’re still short of so many simple things.”

America Care masks can be ordered online at america-care.com or by calling (956) 588-2148. Masks can also be ordered in person at America Care headquarters, 2450 Courage St., Ste. 101.

The application for StartUp Texas COVID-19 relief grants are available at brownsvilledc.org/covid19. For information on obtaining an SBA loan visit assist.brownsvilleedc.org or contact BCIC’s COVID-19 Small Business Response Team at (888) 816-8043.