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Fantasy start-up on hold to produce tools to battle the reality of COVID-19

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Recent University of Auckland student Annabelle Collins is the mastermind behind Modular Realms, a start-up producing magnetic, reversible, game terrain designed for table-top role play games like Dungeons & Dragons. Having prototyped her design using the tools and resources available through the Business School’s Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, her next step was to launch her Kickstarter campaign, which she hoped would give a much needed boost in growing her venture. However, realising there was a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) in the UK, where a number of her 3D printers are based, she didn’t hesitate to put her big plans on hold and dedicate her machines to producing PPE.

Thinking about her decision, she says “It just felt … right. If I have the ability to do something to help vulnerable people in times like these, then how can I not?”

As a former Chemistry PhD student, Annabelle is familiar with PPE and the crucial role it plays in maintaining a safe work environment. However, she had no experience making it herself. Her first priority was research, as “it would be terrible to work hard to provide PPE that was not safe to use and put health workers in further danger. I did a lot of research on materials and their ability to filter out different particles, and kept up to date with new PPE being designed to deal with this crisis.”

The challenge that Annabelle faced was of finding medically approved designs, when there was no time for designs to go through the usual approval process. She eventually decided to print the Prusa Face Shield, as it is being widely accepted by hospitals around the world, and is deemed safe to use as Plan B protection. She ensured that they were printed on clean machines, by someone wearing gloves and a face shield themselves, and sterilised before distribution.

The rapidly changing environment meant that Annabelle needed to continue researching on an ongoing basis. “[There was] a constant influx of new information, ideas, and data to keep on top of, sift through, and summarise to ensure I was never misrepresenting the truth to people I was trying to help.”

Given that much of her manufacturing capability was in the UK, Annabelle took on a more administrative role in the fight against COVID-19 in New Zealand. She used her existing links with healthcare workers to facilitate connections between small businesses like Modular Realms and District Health Boards. She’s worked with everyone from surgeons and midwives to vets and rest home staff, acting as the middleman connecting them with home makers and hobbyist manufacturers like herself. She also worked with Project Face Shield New Zealand, a group of people dedicated to making Plan B PPE for front line heath workers. “I have met some really incredible and inspiration people by doing this,” she says.

Annabelle found two key learnings from this experience:

Firstly, she realised that you don’t have to have an official qualification to help people. You just have to be hardworking, willing, and able to do it. She says, “this was a huge one for me because I never saw myself as someone qualified to be speaking to surgeons or hospital staff about PPE manufacturing and distribution.”

Secondly, to quote Gandalf, “even the smallest person can change the course of the future.” You do not need to be a large manufacturer with lots of resources to be able to make a difference. While you may not be able to make the same impact that a big business could, the impact you make on the people you do help could mean the world to them. She says, “I don’t pretend to have been able to have a huge impact, but I know that several hundred face shields got to front line workers because of me and I think that that small as it is, it is something I can be proud of.”

And finally, a bonus learning – “I also got a crash course in talking to people and organisations that I am sure will help me with Modular Realms!”

Now that bigger businesses are helping out with covering PPE shortages around the world, Annabelle is able to re-focus on her venture. She spoke with Unleash Space Entrepreneur in Residence, Steve Outtrim, who inspired her to get moving and not let the COVID-19 situation hold her back. She also turned to CIE’s Expert Hours for legal advice.

When asked what she has in store for the future of Modular Realms, she says “Oh, I have so many plans ¬- the difficulty has been focussing on just one thing!” In true D&D style, she remains cryptic. “I won’t give away all my secrets, but suffice to say I won’t be bored for a while.” But, she confirms that we can expect to see some exciting new additions to her existing range of products.

Annabelle is running her Kickstarter campaign to raise capital for injection moulding, while also using it as a way of connecting with new customers. She hopes that her creations will help capture people’s imaginations while they are at home. She began her campaign hoping to raise around $5,000. “I realise this doesn’t sound like much,” she says, “but it would get me quite a ways towards the funding required for injection moulding tools, and would give my business a great boost.” Now, a week on, her campaign has proven to be a massive success – raising a whopping $15,000 in the first week.

Reflecting on her experience, Annabelle says that it was amazing to find that when the world starts to go a bit “squibbly”, there is a whole community of people ready to step up and work together to help those in need. “So many people are working behind the scenes, without pay, credit, or thanks, simply because they can, and it has been a privilege to meet some of them. I think it’s made me think much more positively about humanity in general.”

Learn more about Modular Realms: www.modularrealms.com/

James Hutchinson
James Hutchinson

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Recent University of Auckland student Annabelle Collins is the mastermind behind Modular Realms, a start-up producing magnetic, reversible, game terrain designed for table-top role play games like Dungeons & Dragons. Having prototyped her design using the tools and resources available through the Business School’s Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, her next step was to launch her Kickstarter campaign, which she hoped would give a much needed boost in growing her venture. However, realising there was a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) in the UK, where a number of her 3D printers are based, she didn’t hesitate to put her big plans on hold and dedicate her machines to producing PPE.

Thinking about her decision, she says “It just felt … right. If I have the ability to do something to help vulnerable people in times like these, then how can I not?”

As a former Chemistry PhD student, Annabelle is familiar with PPE and the crucial role it plays in maintaining a safe work environment. However, she had no experience making it herself. Her first priority was research, as “it would be terrible to work hard to provide PPE that was not safe to use and put health workers in further danger. I did a lot of research on materials and their ability to filter out different particles, and kept up to date with new PPE being designed to deal with this crisis.”

The challenge that Annabelle faced was of finding medically approved designs, when there was no time for designs to go through the usual approval process. She eventually decided to print the Prusa Face Shield, as it is being widely accepted by hospitals around the world, and is deemed safe to use as Plan B protection. She ensured that they were printed on clean machines, by someone wearing gloves and a face shield themselves, and sterilised before distribution.

The rapidly changing environment meant that Annabelle needed to continue researching on an ongoing basis. “[There was] a constant influx of new information, ideas, and data to keep on top of, sift through, and summarise to ensure I was never misrepresenting the truth to people I was trying to help.”

Given that much of her manufacturing capability was in the UK, Annabelle took on a more administrative role in the fight against COVID-19 in New Zealand. She used her existing links with healthcare workers to facilitate connections between small businesses like Modular Realms and District Health Boards. She’s worked with everyone from surgeons and midwives to vets and rest home staff, acting as the middleman connecting them with home makers and hobbyist manufacturers like herself. She also worked with Project Face Shield New Zealand, a group of people dedicated to making Plan B PPE for front line heath workers. “I have met some really incredible and inspiration people by doing this,” she says.

Annabelle found two key learnings from this experience:

Firstly, she realised that you don’t have to have an official qualification to help people. You just have to be hardworking, willing, and able to do it. She says, “this was a huge one for me because I never saw myself as someone qualified to be speaking to surgeons or hospital staff about PPE manufacturing and distribution.”

Secondly, to quote Gandalf, “even the smallest person can change the course of the future.” You do not need to be a large manufacturer with lots of resources to be able to make a difference. While you may not be able to make the same impact that a big business could, the impact you make on the people you do help could mean the world to them. She says, “I don’t pretend to have been able to have a huge impact, but I know that several hundred face shields got to front line workers because of me and I think that that small as it is, it is something I can be proud of.”

And finally, a bonus learning – “I also got a crash course in talking to people and organisations that I am sure will help me with Modular Realms!”

Now that bigger businesses are helping out with covering PPE shortages around the world, Annabelle is able to re-focus on her venture. She spoke with Unleash Space Entrepreneur in Residence, Steve Outtrim, who inspired her to get moving and not let the COVID-19 situation hold her back. She also turned to CIE’s Expert Hours for legal advice.

When asked what she has in store for the future of Modular Realms, she says “Oh, I have so many plans ¬- the difficulty has been focussing on just one thing!” In true D&D style, she remains cryptic. “I won’t give away all my secrets, but suffice to say I won’t be bored for a while.” But, she confirms that we can expect to see some exciting new additions to her existing range of products.

Annabelle is running her Kickstarter campaign to raise capital for injection moulding, while also using it as a way of connecting with new customers. She hopes that her creations will help capture people’s imaginations while they are at home. She began her campaign hoping to raise around $5,000. “I realise this doesn’t sound like much,” she says, “but it would get me quite a ways towards the funding required for injection moulding tools, and would give my business a great boost.” Now, a week on, her campaign has proven to be a massive success – raising a whopping $15,000 in the first week.

Reflecting on her experience, Annabelle says that it was amazing to find that when the world starts to go a bit “squibbly”, there is a whole community of people ready to step up and work together to help those in need. “So many people are working behind the scenes, without pay, credit, or thanks, simply because they can, and it has been a privilege to meet some of them. I think it’s made me think much more positively about humanity in general.”

Learn more about Modular Realms: www.modularrealms.com/


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