When the coronavirus outbreak spread quickly from China to the rest of the world, triggering a global shortage of medical equipment and a race to secure supplies, Omani entrepreneur Othman Al Mandhari proposed a solution to the health authorities: Go local.
The 30-year-old engineer's Muscat-based start-up, Innotech, specialises in 3D printing services that produce parts for oil and gas companies, industrial businesses and research and development labs. As the Covid-19 pandemic paralysed international trade, disrupted supply chains and hit manufacturing bases globally, Innotech switched gears and began providing life-saving ventilators and masks for those on the frontline of the Covid-19 response in the sultanate.
"Before Covid-19 business was a bit slow, it was really tough, people didn't believe in the technology and we had to do many experiments to show customers," Mr Al Mandhari says. "Now, with Covid-19, people see the technology works. If you cannot import from China, you're forced to manufacture locally. If you want masks or ventilators, you have to manufacture locally and 3D printing is the best way."
For the former Schlumberger engineer, who left his job in 2016 to focus on growing his business, local manufacturing using 3D printing technology is one answer to Oman's economic diversification efforts to help reduce reliance on imports, create jobs for nationals and build new industries.
"Now people are thinking: what happens if you can't import from China? Worldwide, everyone will start to invest in manufacturing hubs," he says. "Why don’t you invest in young engineers – thousands are looking for jobs in Oman – educate them, start to manufacture and export?"
Much like Innotech, 3D printing businesses in other parts of the world are modifying their production to meet increasing demand for medical equipment during the pandemic. For months, manufacturing companies, start-ups, research and development labs and major corporations have been busy 3D-printing face shields and ventilator parts for healthcare professionals and hospitals.
Innotech secured contracts with Oman's Ministry of Health to provide masks and ventilators when it became more difficult to import supplies from China, he says. Now it produces 300 to 400 masks daily in its workshop of 22 3D printers.
"Our 3D printers are running 24/7 ... we are working day and night to keep up with the demand," he says.
So far, Innotech has supplied more than 6,000 masks to the Ministry of Health, which in turn distributes to hospitals and has supplied 2,000 masks to the World Health Organisation in Oman, according to Mr Al Mandhari. It sells each mask for 2.5 Omani riyals (Dh23.87/$6.50), roughly the same amount as the cost of production.
"We are not looking to profit from these products. We are working to help our country in this crisis," he says.
Innotech was established in 2013 and was self-funded. In 2017, venture capital firm Oman Technology Fund invested $100,000 in its sister business, Innobox, which makes educational kits used to teach children aged eight years and older about electronics and programming.
Now Mr Al Mandhari is in talks with local venture capital firms to raise $2 million (Dh7.34m) to $3m in a Series A funding round to expand his businesses and expects the deal to close within six weeks, he says.
The investment will fund plans for a 3D printing factory, which will allow clients from around the world to access the platform, upload a file with the technical specifications for their product, have them manufactured through Innotech's 3D printers and shipped.
The factory will span 3,000 square metres in the first stage, with plans to expand in future phases.
The current round of finance will also see Innotech fund plans for concrete 3D printing that will allow it to fabricate buildings – initially two-to-three storeys – before going on to larger construction projects, he says.
Mr Al Mandhari is also looking to finance the other part of the business, Innobox, which has already sold 800 units, but is embarking on a redesign of its product, to manufacture in-house and expand into the other Gulf and Middle East markets.
The engineer admits that the various branches of his start-up, from 3D printing to education, have prompted investors to see the business as "scattered". However, he insists that this diversification has been an advantage during the Covid-19 pandemic.
For example, the education part of the business stopped generating revenue during the pandemic as schools and educational centres shut down to curb the spread of the virus, which led to the switch in focus to 3D printing.
"Thanks to other services, we survived because of multiple revenue streams," he says. "The mentality of investors is starting to change and they're starting to see it as an advantage."
Getting its Series A funding to open the new factory will be "critical" for the business to focus on demand for parts from all sectors.
"Right now we see huge demand and we can't cover it because we're limited by the number and type of 3D printers," he says.
Oman, which relies on oil revenue for economic growth, is home to major international and local oil and gas companies that currently import parts for their facilities from others countries.
Innotech aims to add value by supplying the parts locally, which would cut costs and delivery times, according to Mr Al Mandhari.
"If we can do this service in Oman we can save time – rather than months, it can take weeks for parts to arrive – save costs, and help companies meet their quota for contracts to local firms," he says.
The company has doubled revenue between 2017-2019 but expects the coronavirus crisis to put a dent in that growth trajectory this year.
"The target for 2020 is to double revenue, but with Covid-19, our expectations are a bit lower," he says.
Growth this year will come from the 3D printing business once the investment is secured and the factory is set up.
"Now we can't target too many clients because the capacity of our printers is limited, but when we get the investment, we can target new customers," he says. "Once we have this factory up and running, we can definitely increase our revenue."
The start-up aims to hire another 12 employees once its secures new funding, as it looks to grow the current team of 15 people.
Future growth targets include expanding the 3D printing business to include metal, concrete and plastic production, he says.
"We are open to any investors from the Middle East," he says.
Q&A with Othman Al Mandhari, chief executive of Innotech
Who first invested in you?
Oman Technology Fund, a local venture capital firm, invested $100,000.
What already successful start-up do you wish you had started?
SpaceX! I am an engineer and engineers are in love with solving challenging problems and space is the most challenging problem you can imagine! I have always been inspired by anything related to space.
What is your next big dream to make happen?
Launch our factory, grow to become the world's number 1 online 3D printing platform and construct the first 3D-printed building in Oman.
What new skills have you learnt in the process of launching your start-up?
Dealing with people! Something we are really bad at, as engineers, is dealing with people because we are dealing with machines most of our time! Being an entrepreneur helped me shape my skills and learn how to deal with people, from customers and employees to family and friends.
How has the Covid-19 pandemic impacted your business?
Our 3D printing and R&D services are positively impacted because the government and the private sector could not import technology from China and other countries because of the lockdown, so we had a massive increase in R&D and 3D Printing services. In our EdTech department, we struggled in the beginning by losing many contracts, but later on we managed to shift into online learning platforms and got back to the track.