How Brock is helping a local company produce COVID-19 test kits

A local company is making an international impact in combating the COVID-19 pandemic thanks to support from Brock University.

Norgen Biotek, a microbiology firm founded by retired Brock Professor of Biological Sciences Yousef Haj-Ahmad, has long produced collection, purification and preservation devices for samples of all types, such as saliva, soil, urine and DNA.

Now, the Thorold-based business is manufacturing COVID-19 testing kits as quickly as possible.

“Our production has been expanded so much that we don’t have anything sitting on our shelves,” said Haj-Ahmad. “We ship everything immediately. People want it yesterday.”

The Machine Shop at Brock has been doing custom machine work for Norgen for several years, including producing steel punches. Here is a second stage machining of a steel punch.

Brock University’s Faculty of Math and Science Machine Shop has been doing custom machine work for Norgen for several years, working closely with their engineer and manufacturing representative David Findlay.

While supporting the Faculty’s research and teaching has been the primary focus of the Machine Shop since the early days of the University, it has also tried to accommodate several start-up or prototyping projects over the years — especially when there’s a Brock connection. It’s where the Norgen collaboration stemmed from.

“One of the things we produce for them are custom steel punches that are precision-machined and heat-treated to a specific hardness,” said Stephen Renda, Supervisor of the Brock Machine Shop. “We use a special grade of tool steel and have finely tuned the process of machining and hardening them in-house.”

He says Findlay reached out with an urgent request to produce new sets of punches to develop COVID-19 testing kits, multiplying the capacity of Norgen’s manufacturing.

“It’s gratifying to know that what we’re doing is helping the cause, but for me, it’s just another day on the job — making parts,” said Renda.

Haj-Ahmad (BSc ’80, MSc ’82) says trying to keep up with demand wouldn’t be possible without Brock, which he calls his “second home and first in Canada.”

“Everyone wants to help each other at Brock,” he said. “I love the small, friendly atmosphere. All my kids went to Brock and we’ve been working with the Machine Shop for years. We’re happy to spend our money there; we don’t even bargain with them. Any other place we’d ask for a quotation, but because of the element of trust with Brock, we don’t need to. You get fast, quality work.”

He says that while the COVID-19 pandemic grew rapidly, its impact can provide lessons on the importance of microbiology.

“Biotechnology and microbiotics are the future,” he said. “Viral outbreaks do happen, and often every 10 years or so. In another decade, we’ll be dealing with something different.”

Haj-Ahmad’s daughter, Mary (BA ’19), works as the executive assistant at Norgen. Working for her family’s business, located a kilometre away from her alma mater, gives her a sense of pride, especially as it plays a role in navigating the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It makes me feel good to know that we’re strengthening our community,” she said. “The region doesn’t always get the recognition it deserves. It makes me really proud to be here. All of these scientists and researchers we’ve seen so much of lately in the news aren’t just in these big cities; they’re here in our backyard.”

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