Aguilar, his best friend Shourya Seth, also 16, and three fellow classmates at Alpharetta High School, created Paralink in April, as they saw health care workers risking infection and death in the fight against COVID-19. Paralink was created to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) to those who need it.
Working in the basement of a home in an Alpharetta subdivision, the group came up with a new approach, tapping into the makerspace culture — places where people can gather to create, invent and learn — and distributed in little pockets all over the city. Using a decentralized web of volunteer manufacturers outfitted with 3D printers and a network of volunteer drivers, the Alpharetta team started small, then began to pick up steam.
After deliveries of a few hundred face shields, their orders grew into the thousands. By June they were coordinating production by 50 different independent manufacturers, and tweaking software that controlled a maze of delivery vectors.
As of June 9, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had delivered 190,000 face shields in Georgia, according to its latest public press release. Paralink had delivered 270,000 by that date and has gone on to add 120,000 more. It has served hospitals big and small throughout the metro Atlanta area and has expanded to hot spots in New York, Colorado and California.
“Now we look at it as a legitimate replacement for what FEMA does in all the states,” said Aguilar.
Paralink began as a project for a Future Business Leaders of America class in high school. Aguilar and Seth, friends from the robotics club, developed a lunchtime takeout menu for teachers who couldn’t leave the building, and used their combinatorial math skills to devise a delivery scheme from area restaurants. They were ready to launch the business, called Pluto, when the school shut down.
Undaunted, they saw a way to use the delivery algorithms to get PPE to local health care workers. They began calling hospitals to find those who needed gear, and coordinated with local makerspaces who used open-source design for a face shield that could be easily shared digitally and replicated on any 3D printer.
Soon they were collaborating with Atlanta Beats COVID-19, a loose network of makerspaces, and taking orders for gear from the database run by the national organization GetUsPPE.
They also networked like crazy, reaching out through LinkedIn and Facebook and other social media, and writing to logistics experts round the country.
“I didn’t quite believe a group of high school students in Alpharetta would be able to pull this off,” said Karthik Ramachandran, an associate professor of operations management at Georgia Tech, who became a mentor. “What they’re taking on is very complicated.”
Ramachandran said there are many supply chain experts in the business world — Kroger, Walmart, UPS — but none that build face shields.
“None of us — you, me, nobody in world — cared about the supply chain for PPE before the COVID crisis came,” he said. “We spent time thinking about chains for milk, eggs, nuts, bolts. This is a huge issue, and we didn’t see it.”
Said Ramachandran, “It’s still a shock that these high school students did it.”
Sean Mills, 36, a seasonal art teacher with Cobb County Schools and a volunteer at the Cobb County makerspace, said he was impressed with Paralink’s ability to handle logistics. “From their side, it looks like a game of Tetris.”
He was also impressed with how fast Paralink’s orders outstripped his group’s capabilities. “They grew faster than we did,” he said. “I was like, ‘Someday, I will work for you, young man.‘”
The team decided to quarantine together and made their headquarters in teammate Michael Giusto’s basement, which they have transformed into the very model of a startup business.
Surfaces are stacked with computers, and the walls are hung with skateboards. There’s a refrigerator, a microwave, a supply of ramen, a ping-pong table, whiteboards and a treadmill to get the blood pumping again when energy flags after midnight.
Aguilar, who is originally from Palo Alto, California, wanted his group to appreciate the startup culture of the Homebrew Computer Club, and so he got them hooked on the HBO series “Silicon Valley,” from which they’ve all taken names. (Aguilar is founder “Jared.”)
“We’ve given up the basement,” said Michael’s dad Vic Giusto, who works in IT for a large corporation. “They get here early in the morning, and I try to run them off at some point in the evening. They started to tell me about the units they were moving, I said, ‘Come on; you gotta be kidding me?‘ Sure enough, they were serious. I talked to my dad about them, and he said, ‘When are they going to be millionaires?‘”
No one is going to be a millionaire soon. The boys donate their time and effort, as does everyone in their extended network of 900 volunteers. Through donations, they are able to provide filament for 3D printers, plastic sheeting for the shields and gas money for the delivery cars.
Coca-Cola has provided warehouse space where they stockpile finished goods, and the delivery service Roadie has provided drivers.
Significant financial support from groups such as AFLAC and the Arthur Blank Foundation made it possible for the group to recently spend $240,000 buying its own 3D printers and plastic cutting equipment, in an attempt to expand their output.
When they sought his advice, Retsef Levi, professor of operations management at the MIT Sloan School of Management, gave them some tips about growing the operation.
With a distributed group of manufacturers, the problems managing the producers, suppliers and the “demand points” increase exponentially as the operation is scaled up, said Levi.
In June, the boys thought Paralink would be gearing down, as new cases of COVID-19 in Georgia dropped. Now, with record-setting new infections, they know they will be back at work for a long time.
One thing Seth wants people to know is that not all young people are superspreaders. “We see a lot of articles talking about high school and college kids partying and ignoring social distancing rules, " he said. “But not all of us are doing that.”
“There is a bright side to this story,” said MIT professor Levi, “which is the unusual creativity and smarts that they show — in marked contrast to the not-the-most-efficient and successful strategy of our government. Without this type of initiative, we would be in a deeper hole.”