Before the spring 2020 semester was even over, Luka Yancopoulos (Viper ‘22) resolved to never take an online course again. The Yorktown Heights native is a lover of school, but maintains that learning isn’t the same when it takes place over Zoom. Once it became clear that the fall 2020 semester would be virtual as well, Luka decided to take a gap year. At the time, he had no idea what he would go on to accomplish in his months away from Penn.
Mere months later, Luka founded Pandemic Relief Supply (PRS) as a wholesale supplier of personal protective equipment (PPE) to frontline organizations in need. The organization has since delivered over 200 million units of PPE.
Luka never dreamed that his project would have such a widespread impact. In fact, his intention at the beginning of the pandemic was just to help the institutions in his own backyard that were in need. Luka’s mother is a nurse practitioner at New York Presbyterian—the biggest hospital in the United States—and his father is a medical doctor and scientist at Regeneron. Both establishments were suffering from a severe shortage of PPE, as most medical institutions were at the time.
Beyond that, Luka was supposed to have an internship that summer at a biotech pharma company. His employer was forced to shut down a vast majority of their laboratories for the summer directly due to shortages in PPE and medical equipment. There was no way to keep all of the labs and departments open without protective gear, and the internship was moved online. Participants had the opportunity to opt out of the program without consequences, which Luka ultimately decided to do.
“When something like that happens to you, where it’s affecting your mom, your dad, your entire family, and then also your employer, it’s hard to not go to bed and wake up thinking about these problems and how much of an impact they’re having,” Luka says, “And we’re talking about impacting not only frontline workers and those saving lives during the pandemic, but also the scientists and researchers who are developing—and ultimately did develop—vaccines, cures, and treatment plans for those afflicted with COVID.”
As COVID–19 cases continued to rise nationwide, Luka devoted his time to finding a solution to the resulting PPE shortage. He and a couple of close friends examined accessible government data to track supplies of PPE coming in and out of the U.S. and to see how significant the shortages were. In doing so, they were able to connect those who were importing PPE directly to those who needed it. They started as a nonprofit, aiming to help in any way they could.
It was not long before they saw unprecedented success. Large distribution companies such as McKesson and Henry Schein began approaching them, wondering how Luka and his friends were able to find PPE and medical–grade products when multi–billion dollar corporations could not.
“At that point, we realized that we were onto something valuable. We thought that it might be scalable beyond helping a few people and organizations that we were close with and wanted to keep protected—we thought there might be an opportunity to grow what we were doing into a business, and to have a significantly greater impact,” Luka says.
As it turns out, they were right. Thus, Pandemic Relief Supply was born.
Will Danon (C ‘21) was similarly unstimulated by online classes. “I need to talk to people, and I make too many awkward jokes over Zoom to feel comfortable,” he says.
Will thought the virtual internship that he had last summer would be his dream job, and but he absolutely hated it. In a period of disillusionment, he decided to take some time off of school and change things up. Will estimates that he sent applications to 40 different companies and received 39 rejections. He was sitting in Clark Park on a late August Sunday when he received a FaceTime from Luka asking if Will wanted to come to L.A. and get involved in growing and scaling PRS.
“I initially came out for what I thought would be a weekend. I was assessing the business, trying to play hard to get, but Luka seduced me almost instantly. I was taken by everything they were doing, by the team of people who were already out there, and I knew I had to be part of it and contribute in any way that I could,” Will says.
As PRS expanded, Luka, Will, and their team realized how severe the flaws in the system were. Though all of the government data that they use is free, it is not easily accessible. Luka describes the websites as "archaic" and "unmanageable," making it nearly impossible to validate supply sources and figure out what products are coming into the United States. PPE shortages were severe at the outset of the pandemic, but even as PPE became more readily available, it was difficult for those at the end of the supply chain to find out who had it and who wasn’t charging ridiculous prices for it.
“It was all over the news and in every major journal throughout the spring, early summer, and even fall of last year. People were essentially jumping into the supply chain, grabbing PPE, up–charging it, and reselling it. It was a crazy chaotic thing, where sometimes a medical product would pass through 20 different companies’ hands before actually getting to the end user,” Luka says.
Pandemic Relief Supply’s initial goal was to take data about who had PPE supply, make it accessible to end users, and shorten the supply chain—cutting out middlemen and brokers and allowing suppliers and end users to work closely with one another.
They achieved this by creating a platform that those who need PPE can log into in order to be connected with suppliers and manufacturers. Thus, the supply chain is shortened and end users and suppliers are put in direct contact with one another.
Their platform expanded from there, eventually allowing users to resell PPE products and make a profit with constraints in place to prevent price gouging. PRS allows users to track orders and shipments, manage their ongoing projects, finances, sales, customer relations, inventory, and more. PRS also makes government documents and FDA certifications for each product readily available and easy to access to ensure that there are no counterfeit products. The PRS platform does all of this, all while being as user–friendly as shopping on Amazon.
As PRS grew, they added a feature that allows vendors to analyze their statistics in comparison with the performance of others. This allows vendors to discover their strengths and weaknesses and, if needed, outsource in areas that they are weak in.
At 8:30 a.m. every day, administrators of the company all meet at their home office in Luka and Will’s garage in Redondo Beach, California. Each person has 30 seconds to share what they did the day before and what they plan on doing that day. They end with a motivational quote from one of their software developers.
What’s next for PRS? The company is planning a launch in mid–June. They plan to add a social media–esque element to their platform, allowing users to interact with other companies. After the launch, not only will users be able to see how they compare to other companies, but they will also be able to connect to one another and work together.
Soon, however, PRS is planning to rebrand. As more people are getting vaccinated and the pandemic winds down, there is less of a need for the service that PRS is providing. They have done an incredible job thus far, delivering 200 million total PPE products to date, but they have been actively recruiting other users as demand for PPE declines.
PRS plans to change its name and continue what they are doing, but with products aside from PPE that they feel are valuable to society and can have a positive impact on the world, specifically renewable energy.
In July and August, they plan to show Venture Capitalists what they’ve done to date to determine whether what they’ve built is relevant beyond the pandemic and adaptable to other industries.
Both Luka and Will will be back at school in the fall, living in an apartment together above White Dog Cafe. The question of how they might continue what they started with PRS is yet to be answered.
“I know that what we did had a tremendous impact in the last year. The question of whether it will continue to have a tremendous impact in other industries during more normal times—I don't know [the answer]," Luka says. "I'm excited to get the feedback of our wise elders and those with experience. And then if they think it's a good idea, hopefully we'll have the funding to continue our company growth, [seeing] what it can become."