Jessica Oblak, centre, is currently testing the latest design for her copper-infused medical uniforms.
For registered ICU nurse, Jessica Oblak, a chance encounter with copper-infused technical athletic wear, marketed as odour-resistant and antibacterial, sparked an idea which put her on an entrepreneurial path to help save lives.
Oblak has witnessed first hand the devastating life-and-death impact hospital-acquired infections can have on patients. So in 2017, she created Copper Medical to develop a line of copper-infused hospital scrubs designed to kill germs and minimize the transfer of harmful microorganisms.
“I knew really early in life that what I wanted to do was to help people," says Oblak, who graduated from Ryerson University's nursing program in Toronto in 2015. “So I became a nurse. I think that's where I got a lot of my passion that drove me to start this business."
“Working in a hospital ... you're always reminded of how short life is, and how important it is to follow your dreams," adds Oblak, who was one of three finalists in the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs' (FWE) Pitch for the Purse, where she pitched her business plan to a gala audience of more than 600.
Hospital-acquired infections are a costly global health care problem which the World Health Organization says affects hundreds of millions of patients every year, and is a major cause of death.
Spread through physical contact, the majority of the most common pathogens that cause infections in hospitals are also antibiotic resistant and can survive for weeks and months on surfaces such as stainless steel and plastic. A patient, whose immune system is already compromised, might see their hospital stay lengthened dramatically if they contract an infection at the hospital, or worse, experience severe, life-long complications, or potentially face death.
While efforts to contain these types of infections have improved over the last decade, health care workers agree more needs to be done. In Canada, the Public Health Agency says more than 8,000 of the 200,000 patients who contract an infection while in a healthcare setting, die every year. These types of infections cost Canadians more than $1 billion dollars to treat.
Copper has long been recognized as having antibacterial qualities, with more than 500 different compositions of copper alloys, like bronze and brass, recognized as antimicrobial by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Still, only a small, though growing number of hospitals around the world have implemented copper-based materials in wards and explored its effectiveness as a tool in combating the spread of hospital-acquired infections.
Oblak decided to focus on scrubs, a US$10 billion industry in North America, because it seemed the most financially feasible and more importantly: Nobody else was doing it.
Doctors, nurses and other hospital staff come in daily contact with blood and other bodily fluids, says Oblak, making their clothing a potential reservoir for microorganisms. An employee often takes their scrubs home for washing, but laundering hospital uniforms at home at 71°C—the temperature the CDC recommends to kill bacteria—can be a challenge.
As a nurse with no experience in business or textile industries, Oblak says she faced a lot of challenges, including how to find the fabric and how to run a company. She enrolled in courses with the University of Toronto and discovered FWE's E-Series program, a 3-day intensive bootcamp. Oblak participated in the Juventas stream for young women, which is sponsored by the RBC Foundation.
“It's a huge risk, it's a financial risk. You have to have the passion, drive and courage to get through it. You have to be able to stomach the ups and downs and whatever issue gets in your way, and you really have to focus on your vision," says Oblak, who scaled back her nursing hours from full-time to weekends and night shifts in order to focus on Copper Medical.
“It's the price I have to pay, but I don't regret it at all," she adds. Still, she counts herself lucky, particularly as a female entrepreneur, noting that her experience so far has been very positive.
Oblak says having a mentor is vital and currently has three herself. They're not in her industry, and they help her navigate different areas, like starting a business, how to formulate a pitch, and how to develop the fabric prototypes.
Her hunt for the elusive fabric had been her biggest challenge so far. She finally found the inventor and manufacturer who owns the patent for copper-infused fabric in August of 2017 and by September, she was fully committed to moving forward with her business idea.
Communication with the company has been going well, says Oblak, but not seeing the fabric being developed in real time has been difficult.
“I'm very hands on, and I want to be very much involved in the process," says Oblak, who plans to make a trip once she goes into production.
She and the Asia-based textiles manufacturer are developing a new fabric and have been testing different compositions for qualities such as stretch, fit, comfort, style, and utility. There's a lot of trial and error, and Oblak is currently testing the fourth iteration of the fabric sample.
Oblak's ultimate goal is to expand into hospital linens, like bed sheets and pillow cases, and contract directly to hospitals. But because the use of copper is still relatively new within hospital settings, Oblak says more evidence-based research on its efficacy and durability is still needed.
“I don't want to just make scrubs that are copper-infused. I want to make them better," says Oblak. “We're working anywhere from eight to 16 hours at a time and it's exhausting. The reason scrubs look like PJs is because they've got to be comfortable."
“I'm a nurse. I'm my own customer. This is what I was meant to do," she adds.
International Women's Day 2020
RBC Wealth Management is working to support and celebrate the social, economic and cultural ambitions of women in Canada, to help ensure their economic equality and prosperity.