Businesses across County Durham have displayed their ingenuity and adaptability to help in the fight against coronavirus. PETER BARRON reports

THE desperate battle to save lives during the biggest public health crisis in living memory has been global – but companies in County Durham can be proud of the pioneering part they have played.

From swiftly adapting production processes to respond to the critical national shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) and hand sanitiser, to helping in the pursuit of a vaccine, and even looking ahead to future biological threats, County Durham businesses have risen to the challenge.

The versatility and commitment shown by business leaders during this critical time underline yet again why Durham County Council’s Powered by People movement – putting people at the forefront of efforts to promote the county as a great place to live, work and invest – is more relevant than ever.

NETPark, a hub of ingenuity near Sedgefield, has been in the vanguard of the County Durham effort, with four of its businesses – REPROCELL Europe, Graphene Composites, Stream Bio, and Kromek – all making important but very different contributions.

NETPark is one of the UK’s fastest-growing science, engineering and technology parks, providing more than 550 highly skilled jobs across a range of sectors, such as life science and electronics.

The Northern Echo: NETParkNETPark

And Janet Todd, NETPark manager at Business Durham, said: “It’s great to see that the NETPark companies are looking at innovative ways to fight COVID-19 and proactively seeking out collaborative opportunities. We wish them well.”

REPROCELL Europe, which specialises in leading-edge tools and products for stem cell and 3D cell culture research, is supporting an international consortium, led by Belgian life sciences company eTheRNA, to develop a vaccine for COVID-19.

Finding a vaccine is, of course, the ultimate goal in the fight against coronavirus but, while that work continues, nano-technology manufacturer Graphene Composites has been working on a graphene ink that kills the virus and can be applied to PPE, including face masks, to provide added protection.

The Northern Echo: A REPROCELL scientist working in one of the company’s stem cell laboratoriesA REPROCELL scientist working in one of the company’s stem cell laboratories

Stream Bio Ltd, which is based at the Centre for Process Innovation, within NETPark, is engaged in work on the early detection of COVID-19. The company develops and manufactures fluorescent molecular probes used for labelling antibodies. The probes increase the sensitivity of antibody testing, enabling earlier detection and, hopefully, becoming a new weapon in the fight against coronavirus.

And the work of biotechnology firm Kromek Group is not only aimed at combating COVID-19 but what could follow in the future. The NETPark company is recruiting a Project Engineer to focus on the development of a mobile pathogen detection system to detect biological threats.

A few miles away, Newton Aycliffe is another important location for companies supporting the fight to stem coronavirus, and keep key workers safe. Within ten days of the outbreak, chemicals giant INEOS built a hand sanitiser production facility and began shipping supplies for free to NHS sites and care services across the country. The plant has been producing a million bottles a month, as well as making “pocket bottle” hand sanitisers for individual use.

Nearby, Tricogen Laboratories, which is featured in the current issue of Business IQ magazine, is also investing £500,000 in a new production line after seeing demand rocket for the hand sanitiser it has produced for more than a decade.

The Northern Echo: Tricogen Laboratories Tricogen Laboratories

Another Newton Aycliffe flag-bearer, science-based technology company 3M was established as a leader in the manufacture of PPE for public health and healthcare professionals well before coronavirus was ever heard of. The company has increased production at all of its plants, including Newton Aycliffe, and is doubling its global output of respirators and delivering them to front line healthcare providers.

ALM Engineering Solutions, also based at Newton Aycliffe, normally provides precision machined components, mainly for the aerospace, defence, nuclear, rail, automotive and sub-sea industries However, it produced a “Herculean effort” to meet an emergency order to manufacture beds for the Nightingale Hospital caring for coronavirus patients in Manchester. Despite never having made beds before, the company came up with a design and delivered 150 beds within a week.

That kind of adaptability has been a hallmark of County Durham businesses during the pandemic, with companies reinventing themselves to seize opportunities and support the national effort, and Aura Infection Control, at Barnard Castle, is another case in point.

The Northern Echo: ALM Engineering Solutions staff load up the emergency beds, ready to be delivered to the Nightingale Hospital at ManchesterALM Engineering Solutions staff load up the emergency beds, ready to be delivered to the Nightingale Hospital at Manchester

Before coronavirus, the company was a leading player in the British dental industry supplying a wide range of products and training aimed at keeping patients safe. When the lockdown was announced, and dental practices were closed nationwide, Aura’s future was suddenly uncertain.

However, managing director Laura Edgar and her 14-strong team quickly bounced back from the shock of what had happened by realizing that the business was ideally placed to supply PPE to key workers.

Working seven days a week, mum-of-two Laura managed the distribution of 50,000 gowns, thousands of packs of bacterial wipes, countless bottles of hand gel, aprons and other PPE equipment. Other outlets included the region’s police forces, care homes, GP surgeries, and Middlesbrough Football Club.

“I’m extremely proud of the way the team responded,” said Laura, who was singled out as a shining example of the Powered by People movement, with people at the forefront of efforts to promote the county as a great place to live, work and invest.

“At the start of the lockdown, they went home not knowing if they’d be brought back or furloughed. But we had a warehouse full of products, we were in a great position to help, and the staff adapted brilliantly.”

The Northern Echo: Far right, Laura Edgar of Aura Infection ControlFar right, Laura Edgar of Aura Infection Control

Meanwhile, Barnard Castle’s most prominent employer, GSK, is also playing its part by joining forces with another pharmaceutical giant, Sanofi, in the search for a vaccine.

There is justifiable pride in the way County Durham businesses have responded in true Powered by People style during such historic and difficult times.

Sarah Slaven, interim managing director of Business Durham, said: “This is a challenging time for a lot of businesses in the county, but we are delighted to see some of them working to help fight the coronavirus outbreak.

“These businesses are demonstrating tremendous agility, adaptability and innovation. They have the technical knowledge, resources and the manufacturing skills to help produce much needed technology and products which will hopefully help alleviate some of the pressure from other national suppliers and help protect the NHS.

“We are playing our part in tackling the coronavirus outbreak to help protect our communities, our businesses and our workforce in County Durham.”

The Northern Echo: Sarah Slaven, interim managing director of Business DurhamSarah Slaven, interim managing director of Business Durham

Cllr Carl Marshall, Cabinet member for economic regeneration at Durham County Council, added: “County Durham has an international reputation as a place of technological and scientific innovation; therefore, I am delighted but not surprised that businesses based here are playing a crucial role in the battle against coronavirus.

“At NETPark, and across the county, we have developed a supportive environment where collaboration is encouraged. This is very much at the heart of our Powered by People campaign, which celebrates the contribution each individual makes.

“This is an example of where collaboration, innovation and utilising the skills of our talented workforce has the power to save lives. These companies should feel incredibly proud of the work they are undertaking, and I would like to wish them the best.”

The Northern Echo: Cllr Carl Marshall, Cabinet member for economic regeneration at Durham County CouncilCllr Carl Marshall, Cabinet member for economic regeneration at Durham County Council

Throughout it all, businesses engaged in the battle against COVID-19 have been supported by Durham County Council and Business Durham, with the local authority praised nationally for the speed with which it distributed relief to small and medium sized enterprises once the Government had announced the Business Rates Grant scheme.

Providing that crucial financial backing, being flexible over accommodation, helping firms accelerate the shift to digitalisation, or linking them up with emerging opportunities have all been part of the backing provided by the county council and Business Durham.

And it means that when this global fight is won, the people of County Durham will be able to look back and say: “We rose to the challenge and did our bit.”

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