Personal protection equipment (PPE) and medical devices such as respiratory machines and ventilators have become highly-coveted items since Covid-19 hit us earlier in the year.
Countries worldwide faced a shortage of medical supplies, especially protective gowns and surgical masks.
One business that played a huge role in ensuring Singapore has a stable supply of healthcare equipment in the past few months following the pandemic outbreak is Lumiere32.
They combatted a global lockdown and import bans from major medical equipment producing countries such as China and India, to bring in a steady flow of medical supplies to Singapore.
We found out from them how they came to start the business, which now plays a pivotal role in Singapore’s fight against Covid-19.
Digitalising The Healthcare Equipment Industry
The husband-wife duo behind the B2B online medical equipment platform is Dr. Priti Bhole and Raman Chauhan.
They noted that for the last three decades, the medical supplies industry has been running on a rather traditional business model.
We have seen so far that the industry is fragmented. It’s fragmented in the way that a single clinic has to reach out to multiple suppliers.– Raman Chauhan, co-founder of Lumiere32
This makes the distribution process very inefficient and some clinics may not receive their ordered supplies on time.
They wanted to create a platform that allows clinics to order from multiple suppliers in a single purchase order. They also wanted to make it easy for clinics to request for demos and samples through the platform.
However, the medical supplies industry has high barriers of entry as it requires thorough knowledge and industry experience to identify the right products, especially when the supplies are eventually used to protect, intervene, treat and restore the health of the community.
Fortunately, Dr Priti was already familiar with the medical regulations as she had worked as a full-time dentist in India for seven years. She also possess an in-depth understanding of the dental device market in the Asia-Pacific region.
With Dr Priti’s expertise coupled with Raman’s tech experience from working at CISCO, IBM and Microsoft, they built the online platform Lumiere32.
Scaling Up From 6 To 130 Brands
They started out selling predominantly dental supplies to private clinics and had only six brands at that time.
Subsequently, they expanded their product line to include a wide range of medical products as they saw a demand for them.
By the second year of operation, they had scaled up to 130 brands.
Their customer base grew exponentially to include government agencies such as government hospitals and institutions as well.
Lumiere32 even launched Pay32, Singapore’s first digital wallet for clinics in partnership with GrabFinance.
Most SMEs are unable to maintain sufficient amounts in liquidity because they don’t have positive cashflow. As a result, they tend to turn to alternative lenders to get loans.
Lumiere32 partnered with GrabFinance to solve this issue by providing pre-approved credit lines for clinics under Lumiere32.
Through this service, any dental and medical clinic can purchase products from the platform instantly without paying upfront — instead of completing the payment in 90 or 120 days with 0 per cent interest.
The pre-approval process also requires documentation as minimal as the Director’s Identification Number, which is a great leap forward from the standard loan application processes, where multiple documentation is required.
To date and in Singapore alone, Lumiere32 has supplied up to 3 million pieces of face masks, 500,000 thermometers, several thousands of hand sanitisers, isolation gowns, N95 masks, and other highly essential medical equipment to over 750 clinics, 15 hospitals and 100 corporate firms.
Challenges At The Start
However, it was no walk in the park to get to where they are today.
When we started, it was hard for suppliers to trust us. We appeared as a threat to them. The suppliers saw us as competition rather than partners.– Dr. Priti Bhole, co-founder of Lumiere32
After 15 months into the business, they eventually gained the trust from the suppliers and ensured that they are working for, and not against them.
“When you’re working with the dental and medical supplies, you have to make sure you complement their business capabilities as well. We do have licenses from the Health Science Authority as well as GDPMDS license for Lumiere32 where we can control the distribution of the products,” Raman added.
With that being said, Lumiere32 needs to make sure these products are delivered at the right quality and there are no counterfeit products being channeled to the clinics.
COVID-19 Came And Disrupted Their Business
The biggest challenge they have faced so far is none other than Covid-19.
When the pandemic hit nations in late January this year, many markets were caught off guard.
“[All] of a sudden, we began receiving over 300 calls and 200 emails for bulk purchase of PPE,” said Dr Priti and Raman.
In the same month, China imposed the ban on exports of PPE, which affected most of the local suppliers in Singapore as they depend heavily on China for medical supplies.
“Our local suppliers ran out of stock within 3 to 4 days and we had to look for overseas suppliers and manufactures to meet the demand. The workload for the team increased tenfold and we only had 24 hours in a day to manage it,” said Dr Priti and Raman.
Raman then quickly booked a flight to India to source for medical supplies as India is the nearest and largest country producing medical supplies after China.
He travelled to Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai to meet manufacturers and suppliers.
In the meantime, customer enquiries were flooding their communication channels as they struggled to attend to all of them.
We slept about 3 to 4 hours each day for almost 1 and half months to ensure that we are able to answer to each and every enquiry. We worked 7 days a week for almost three months at a stretch, as the demand and enquiries was keeping us on our toes.– Dr. Priti Bhole and Raman Chauhan, co-founders of Lumiere32
According to them, the real obstacle was when countries worldwide started locking down their borders, whilst medical supplies desperately needed to depart overseas factories to arrive in Singapore.
Dr Priti reiterated that at the beginning, “We even had to travel across borders to pick up medical supplies on our own.”
In the next month, India followed suit and imposed a ban on exports of face masks and one of their huge shipments could not come through at the last minute. They could only secure one small shipment of face masks just before the ban was implemented.
Thankfully, Raman managed to hand-carry some high quality N95 masks on his way back to Singapore which they later donated to old-age homes here.
At that time, they were also in touch with manufacturers from countries like Turkey, Malaysia, Korea, Vietnam to onboard their products on the platform so they could secure some PPE and hand sanitisers.
Besides grappling with the difficulties to ship the supplies over, manufacturers were increasing their prices on a daily basis due to shortage of raw materials, and as buyers around the world were bidding rigorously on the products.
As most of the major airlines were grounded, shipping costs increased by 9 to 10 times as well. Eventually, the prices of the products shot up due to the shortage in raw materials and the increased logistics costs.
“It was very difficult for us to inform consumers about the sudden increase in prices,” said Dr Priti and Raman.
Before the pandemic, PPE sales on Lumiere32 make up between only five and eight per cent of purchases by clinics and hospitals.
Today, PPE sales have increased by 9 to 10 times, which includes but not limited to masks, thermometers, hand sanitisers, gloves, face shields, isolation gowns, and protective goggles.
How It’s Going To Look Like Beyond COVID-19
Now, more than ever before, the world has seen the importance of medical equipment.
“We are expecting that the demand for PPE items will still be there for a few years even after Covid-19 has been contained,” said Dr Priti and Raman.
“Healthcare professionals globally will be implementing more strict measures on disinfection, sterilisation, and personal protection to avoid any unforeseen events.”
To curb the shortages in face masks and protective gowns, companies worldwide have switched their original manufacturing lines to produce these highly coveted items.
“Even at personal capacity, people have started producing and distributing PPE. However, this is a transient phase in an hour of need.”
Lumiere32 foresees that this will cease after the pandemic is over and the supply of these items will drop.
Once Covid-19 subsides, all the organisations will resume their original work as the medical device space requires deep knowledge and expertise about the product(s) and the buying behaviour of consumers.– Dr. Priti Bhole and Raman Chauhan, founders of Lumiere32
There has been a lot of counterfeit products or products that do not meet the regulations floating in the market.
New manufacturers and buyers who do not know better, have jumped onto the bandwagon to produce or sell medical supplies with a lack in expertise.
How Healthcare Equipment Distributors Can Better Manage Shortages
Moving forward, medical device businesses should be open towards embracing technology and digitalise their procurement, stressed Dr Priti and Raman.
This will eliminate inefficiencies and also quicken the process of getting medical supplies in desperate times of need since Covid-19 has shown the importance to digitalise what we can.
Besides that, traditional businesses depend heavily on few manufacturers and mostly on one or two countries for procurement of supplies.
The pandemic has seen many businesses cutting their supplies due to import bans implemented by major producing countries and nation lockdowns.
“Instead they can use technology to connect with multiple verified manufacturers and suppliers globally which can help them in procurement to address shortage of supplies as well as in facilitating outbound cross-border transactions,” said Dr. Priti and Raman.
Featured Image Credit: Lumiere32