Pandemic spurs undergraduate brothers into launching price-busting PPE company
“We hope to build transparency in this market and ensure that no-one is overpaying for PPE”
Student brothers from St John’s College have founded a non-profit organisation offering high quality PPE at cost-price in the ongoing fight against Covid-19.
Fifth-year medic Aman Mehan, 23, and his 20-year-old geography student brother Kavi, who finished his second year at St John’s last term, launched the Cost Price PPE website from their home in Manchester during lockdown in May.
The enterprising siblings source high quality PPE (personal protective equipment) such as masks, respirators and face shields direct from approved manufacturers in China and sell it at cost price, bypassing profit-making businesses. They came up with the idea in April when the news was full of stories of shortages of quality PPE and profiteering.
Aman said: “When we discovered the cost prices for items of PPE and compared this to the prices we were seeing online, we were shocked. Medical grade masks that cost around 6p to buy from China were being sold by intermediate suppliers for up to £2. Overnight, PPE turned into an incredibly lucrative business. At those outrageous prices, many healthcare organisations were left struggling, so we thought to ourselves, 'why don’t we just cut out these middlemen and their high margins and supply the protective equipment directly from China to those in need?'
“Our aim was to combat price gouging and ensure that everyone had access to high quality PPE at appropriate prices.”
The brothers had previously established contacts in China thanks to an internship Kavi completed and an exchange programme funded by St John’s that Aman was selected for. During the month-long trip Aman studied at Shanghai Jiao Tong University followed by a work placement, which gave him the opportunity to forge new connections and brush up on the Mandarin he had learned at school. Kavi speaks fluent Mandarin and the siblings’ expertise has enabled them to partner with a Chinese import-export firm and negotiate directly with manufacturers of medical-grade PPE in China to obtain the best pricing options.
Initially only UK health care organisations were approached, with interest from care homes, GP surgeries, pharmacies and dentists. But the brothers are now trialling bulk supply to other sectors in Britain and overseas.
Aman said: “The situation with PPE is a lot better now than it was a few months ago and prices are much more reasonable. However, we see no reason to stop. We aim to establish ourselves as a trusted, reliable supplier and continue to build relations with organisations in need around the globe.
“Even if customers don’t purchase from us, they can still use the prices on our website as a guide for what they should be paying to their usual suppliers. In this way, we hope to build transparency in this market and ensure that no-one is overpaying for PPE.”
Two fourth-year medical students from St John’s, Shahzaib Ahmed and Brian Obiri, were enlisted to help the Mehans. They helped to research PPE supply chains in Latin America.
“The main issue we continue to face at the moment is a lack of awareness,” said Aman. “It’s quite difficult to stand out as a non-profit organisation against the bigger businesses that have dedicated sales teams and high profits to fund TV and social media ad campaigns. If you Google us, companies selling medical masks for 10 times our price still come up first.
“Word-of-mouth has helped and we’re happy with the number of organisations we’ve been able to help so far, and we hope to continue to make steady progress.”
The duo both ended up studying at St John’s after Aman ‘fell in love’ with the College on a school visit. After coming to see his older brother in Cambridge, Kavi followed suit. Will their 13-year-old sister follow in their footsteps? “She wants to be an actor,” said Aman. “But you never know, maybe she will continue the family trend!”
As well as running a new business with his brother, Aman has been continuing his studies, preparing for his medical exams and writing papers on Covid-19 with College friends. Meanwhile Kavi has launched a non-profit education consultancy called the ‘Oxbridge Launchpad’, which has been offering free mentoring to state-school students and those from disadvantaged backgrounds that have disproportionately been affected by the impact of Covid-19 on schooling.
Kavi said: “We’ve been very busy over the lockdown period and setting up these two companies while also revising for exams has been challenging but I’m quite proud of what we’ve achieved so far. It’s been very rewarding to do what we can to help out in a time when the whole nation is struggling.”
“It’s been great working with my brother,” Aman said. “We’ve always been very close, we get on really well, and he’s also super sharp and quick-thinking. I can’t ask for a better business partner.”
The Mehans are not the only members of St John’s to set up a not-for-profit PPE company. Also joining the fight against Covid-19 is St John’s alumna Charley Yen (Eugenie Yu Hsuan), who has co-founded TRI MASKS UK, a charity scheme selling high-quality, reusable masks with 100% of profits going towards donating masks to people who are more vulnerable or affected by Covid-19. Charley studied Natural Sciences at St John’s as an undergraduate, followed by an MPhil in Zoology.
“This seems like a great initiative and it’s cool to see members of the St John’s community coming together like this to help solve some of the problems Covid-19 has presented,” said Aman.
“Kavi and I had a lot of fun working on Cost Price PPE together and are excited to see how this company develops. At the same time, it’s been amazing to see others also kindle their entrepreneurial spirit and launch their own non-profits to do some amazing work.”