4 Questions for Gen Z Mask Entrepreneur Elvis Zhang

At the age of 19, Elvis Zhang was the youngest among the 2018 class of Forbes 30 Under 30 successful people in business, as the founder of Oxy2, a technology design company with both for-profit and non-profit divisions.

In an interview with Knowledge@Wharton High School, Zhang, a native of China who graduated from The Shipley School in Bryn Mawr, Pa., in 2017, talked about his innovative products, including Oxy Facewear, a biodegradable mask designed for everyday use to protect wearers from breathing in harmful air pollutants. Zhang was passionate about urban living – and more specifically, his China home. “I grew up in Hong Kong and Shenzhen, which really shaped my worldview,” he said. “In general, I think we should start concentrating on cities. People tend to underestimate how fast trends will come, and when they do come, it will be too late. New technologies have transformative power to make cities more effective and make people’s lives more efficient.”

The outbreak of the novel coronavirus in recent weeks (which began in the city of Wuhan, China) has all but shut down the country, infecting thousands and killing more than 1,300. Urban livability, in which Zhang is deeply interested, is part of this story. Jonathan Quick, author of The End of Epidemics, told our sister publication Knowledge@Wharton, “One of the factors that accelerated Ebola [a virus], and it accelerates influenza and others, is being in major cities. It’s the crowding.”

We checked in with Zhang, now 21, this week to find out his thoughts on the crisis in his country, and how, as an entrepreneur with a related product, he acted to address the problem. 

Knowledge@Wharton High School: Can you update us on Oxy2? How has the company evolved since 2018?

Elvis Zhang: Oxy2 was acquired for $20 million at the end of 2019, thanks to our steady growth in 2018 in regions like India and China [Zhang previously mentioned deep distribution relationships with Siemens, 3M and other major companies]. However, we retained the intellectual property rights for the nonprofit business. This vehicle has been our primary effort to provide support for the regions in China affected by this epidemic.

KWHS: How has the outbreak of the coronavirus impacted your business? Your masks were originally designed to protect people from environmental pollution. Had you considered the medical market for your masks, as well?

Zhang: While Oxy2ʼs proprietary technology focuses on pollution protection, which is quite different in chemistry and material from viruses, we still have very similar manufacturing processes and related domain knowledge. In addition, we have a significant amount of access to manufacturing and distribution resources, and we have deployed those resources heavily for manufacturing medical masks and other supplies since January when the virus started.

KWHS: Have you partnered with hospitals in China?

Zhang: Many hospitals in Wuhan, China, have reached out for medical supplies and other resources. We are partnering with five hospitals in Wuhan that have the most patients. We are not planning to make any profit from this partnership. The epidemic is of tremendous importance to me and my family, and Iʼm just grateful that we are able to help the doctors in those hospitals. We are taking full advantage of our factories in Shenzhen, Zhuhai, as well as manufacturing partners in Korea and Japan. Through resources of Oxy2 and partners, we have together manufactured 500,000 surgical-grade masks during the past two months and are working with the local government to fully distribute them in hospitals and communities.

KWHS: In our previous interview, you urged today’s youth to “be present and observe how people are occupying a space, how they’re behaving, and what problems you see.” What are your thoughts on pandemics and their effect on the global economy?

Zhang: Global health is one of my biggest motivations to do what I do. While this epidemic has caused serious damages to many communities and an alarm for Chinaʼs emergency response and local governance system, I am humbled by the response of the people, doctors and supporters. I’ve never been in a frightening situation like the one the people in Wuhan are facing. But if I ever am, I just hope I can handle it with the courage and grace that they are.

Another telling story of this epidemic shows the lack of medical infrastructure to respond to infectious diseases. The problem is not the lack of scientific progress, but rather a lack of capital to fund these pipelines because itʼs more difficult to commercialize. To me, unmet health care needs should drive capital, not the other way around. As a result of that, I have been working on a new impact-driven health care fund to provide resources for biomedical technologies that will have a large impact on society.

 

Concerned about the vanishing blue sky in his China home, Elvis Zhang began researching urban issues like pollution while in high school.

Conversation Starters

Would you describe Elvis Zhang as a social entrepreneur? Why or why not?

Elvis Zhang says, "Another telling story of this epidemic shows the lack of medical infrastructure to respond to infectious diseases. The problem is not the lack of scientific progress, but rather a lack of capital to fund these pipelines because itʼs more difficult to commercialize." What does he mean by this?

Do you have ideas or stories related to the coronavirus outbreak? Log in and share them in the comment section of this article.

4 thoughts on “4 Questions for Gen Z Mask Entrepreneur Elvis Zhang

  1. Anthony Constantinou completely agree with your statement that “Another telling story of this epidemic shows the lack of medical infrastructure to respond to infectious diseases. The problem is not the lack of scientific progress, but rather a lack of capital to fund these pipelines because itʼs more difficult to commercialize.” What does he mean by this?

  2. I would first like to give a tremendous thank you to Elvis Zhang for being a great help to millions of people. It is very idolizing to see a person of youth doing deeds like these out of the care in his heart. I admire Elvis Zhang’s drive, and motive for his invention, and think it is magnificent of him to be taking on such a heavy task to help his people, and other people in this world. The mask is a great invention and is extremely useful in times like this with the Coronavirus going around. Also, this story helped me to better understand and care for all the people in the world, but especially Wuhan because I could not imagine how hard it is right now there. I have so much empathy in my heart for everyone there in this moment. I also want to say the world is lucky to have a person like Elvis Zhang who genuinely cares about the society and what is happening around the world, while he is doing his best ability to help out. I am so glad that I have come across this miraculous story, and found out about the amazing Elvis Zhang, thank you.

  3. I am fortunate to say that I grew up in a very culturally diverse area so when the COVID-19 outbreak first occurred, many of my peers were directly impacted because their families lived around the Wuhan area. I specifically remember one of my friends telling that her parents couldn’t even find masks here in the states to send to to her grandparents who were in desperate need overseas. Not only is it heart warming to see initiatives like this that don’t seek profit, but it makes me wonder about the role even bigger companies could potentially play in this pandemic. We have already seen many companies pledge not to lay off workers to help the economy but more MUST be done. Large corporations like Amazon and Google have the funds to donate substantial amounts to hospitals which are, as many of our nation’s leaders put it, fighting on the front line of this war.

    But why stop there? These companies are worth billions upon billions of dollars and while the efforts they have taken thus far have been helpful, they potentially hold the fate of humanity in their hands. I’m starting to wonder how much larger this issue becomes before necessity diminishes greed.

    This perspective may seem controversial but there is something that is for sure – those with money will not die from the Coronavirus. They have ventilators on hand, doctors waiting on them, and enough money to pay off anyone to ensure their survival. But what about the rest of the world? The fate of the world lies in initiatives such as this to help the everyday person but unfortunately our all of our biggest assets have not done contributed their fair share yet. Maybe we will look back on this and ten years and see how many lives could have been saved or how we could have mitigated this pandemic sooner with a different course of action from those in power.

  4. Living in Bronx, a NYC borough with a high rate of poverty and also the epic center of COVID-19, I have been witnessing what is happening to “the rest of the world” as mentioned in Sanjana Y’s thoughtful comments. People with low income or from disadvantaged social groups have been impacted most severely. Today I am very saddened by the story about a Bronx man who lost his mother, brother and job to COVID-19 within a short three-day period. I am also disheartened to learn that over 50 teachers and education employees from my neighborhood schools died of COVID-19, and that some of them were in their early 30s and have left their young children behind. Being hit the hardest, New York City has reported that around 123,146 people were infected and 11,477 died as of April 16, 2020. Thousands of new cases are reported each day. Bronx, the area I am living in, has reported 25,638 infected cases as of today. There are outbreaks at nursing homes and long term care centers across NYC. Most of infected belong in the low income population and live in “the rest of the world”. They usually don’t have access to masks, virus tests and treatments and many died at home, or nursing homes or in ERs while waiting to get tested.

    How did this happen? I blame the dire disparities fostered by systemic divestment in community health. Many people have been excluded from the current public health care system, which is not well prepared for COVID-19 and is at the brink of being torn apart by the virus. When COVID-19 hit New York City hard in March, its public health system was totally not ready to test or treat a large number of patients. Essential medical supplies and equipment such as N95 and medical masks, protection suits and ventilators were in extreme short supply. In early March, doctors and nurses on the front lines could not even get enough protection supplies. Some of them had to even wear garbage bags and many got infected, and a few died at a young age. Volunteers from local communities came together to donate masks and medical supplies to hospitals and police departments. Some donated money or tried to ship medical supplies from oversea. Some others made protection suits and masks at home using their sewing machines or 3D printers. Many New Yorkers have stayed together to fight the virus.

    But amid this crisis, where are those large corporations? Where are those Wall Street billionaires? What have they done to save lives?

    More than 34,562 people with COVID-19 have died in the US. During the last week, death tolls rose to over 2,000 for three days in a row. While hundreds of thousands of people are suffering in critical conditions and fighting hard for their lives, some people with power and influence are busy fighting with one another and pointing fingers. What they care most is to get elected or to manipulate the stock market to maximize personal gains during the crisis. They are oblivious to the increasing death tolls and pains of the dying patients. Saving lives obviously is not on their agenda and instigating racial hatred is a convenient way for them to shun their responsibilities. Racial discrimination is a worse enemy to fight with in this difficult time for many citizens and immigrants in minority groups. NYC sees rise in COVID-19 hate crimes against Asian. Last week an Asian woman in NYC was attacked with acid outside her home and suffered severe chemical burn across her body.

    COVID-19 has been the most challenging global crisis since WWII. Surprisingly the US has reported the highest number of confirmed cases and deaths of the world. Our public health system and crisis response readiness have been challenged in every imaginable way. How large corporations and Wall Street billionaires fulfill their social responsibilities during this difficult time is yet to be seen. The country needs powerful leaders who can build coalitions and fight the virus effectively, instead of mediocre politicians taking great pride in valueless arguments and scapegoat finding. Doctors, nurses and police officers need effective protection and support. Patients need tests, ventilators and medicines, and all of us need to keep our families and friends alive. This country is not only for the super rich or too big to fail mega corporations but also for all the ordinary people that love this country and are fighting hard to protect their way of life and their right to breathe freely.

    After COVID-19, there will be a right time to revisit the public health system, strengthen the pandemic responsive readiness and bridge the gap between different economic and social groups. All lives matter. God bless America.

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