June 25, 2020 • By Xanat Hernandez
Sometimes strong leadership means admitting you don’t have all the answers. During the first days of California’s stay-at-home order, the team at United Biologics in Santa Ana, led by president John Barnhill FEMBA ’07, took the time to ask the right questions. The result was the production and donation of over 2,000 face shields and a congressional letter of support from Congressman Lou Correa.
United Biologics specializes in producing silicone vasculature: medical simulation equipment that helps the medical community engineer new technology, train physicians and market new products and procedures. The company can manufacture an exact silicone model of any healthy or diseased vein in the human body.
In March, as businesses across the state began closing their doors, United Biologics faced a difficult decision. As a support system for medical device companies, medical training facilities and academic medical centers, United Biologics was a pillar of the Orange County medical community—but was it essential?
“We were perplexed, wondering if we were considered critical infrastructure,” said Barnhill. “We shut down for six business days, probably the most intense six days of my career.”
During the shut-down, the company received letters from customers urging them to remain operational. United Biologics reached out to Congressman Lou Correa for guidance. Correa’s office not only encouraged the company to reopen—they first sparked the idea of manufacturing personal protective equipment (PPE).
“We knew we wanted to give back to the community we serve and directly support the fight against COVID-19 doing something we’re good at—and that’s working with plastic,” said Barnhill.
Remarkably, United Biologics hired four additional workers to help manufacture PPE at a time when many companies faced furloughs and lay-offs. Within an hour, Barnhill himself had called to interview candidates, who all reported for work the following day.
The United Biologics team found an open design for face shields from the University of Wisconsin and developed a safe, socially distant assembly process. Team members cut the plastic, smoothed it down, printed components on 3D printers and sterilized the finished product using UV light. The team produces 350 face shields a day.
A New Normal
Although United Biologics was able to retain all employees and continue to operate their core business model, office life is anything but business as usual.
The sales, admin, creative, accounting and design teams immediately began working from home—freeing up valuable space at the office for a new “enhanced safety protocol.” Traditional office spaces are now production zones and 1,000 face shields have been produced in Barnhill’s own office. Employees wear face masks or face shields and receive a catered lunch every day to not only minimize any risk of going outside, but also to preserve personal food supplies.
“We just wanted people to feel safe,” said Barnhill. “Our mantra was ‘protect the people, preserve the business,’ and that’s guided everything we’ve done.”
United Biologics has also experimented with new ways to market and sell their products, as medical conferences and in-person meetings came to a screeching halt.
“We thrived in showing off our intricate anatomical models in face-to-face situations,” said Barnhill. “We’ve had to create our own marketplace through original content and digital media and pivot our sales model.”
United Biologics is leaning into the digital space by hosting webinars, capturing the models on technical videos and launching new products to meet unmet needs.
Path to Leadership
After Barnhill graduated from USC with a bachelor’s degree in business, he tried his hand in several industries (including security, digital media and fashion) before finding his niche with medical devices.
“It’s an amazing industry,” he said. “New technology just sprung up, and now people that weren’t eligible for surgery suddenly are. It’s a fascinating business and it feels good to be helping people.”
Barnhill received his MBA through the Fully Employed MBA Program at The UCI Paul Merage School of Business while working at Edwards Lifesciences. He was looking for the knowledge to advance his career, credentials from a top local school and a place to build his network in Orange County. The Merage School fit the bill nicely.
Some of his favorite times at the Merage School include participating in business plan competitions—where he got to pitch ideas to venture capitalists and receive invaluable feedback.
“The excitement and fun of pitching a business plan was an unforgettable experience, and I learned things that I still utilize to this day,” he explained.
The experience of pitching to local venture capitalists gave him the “entrepreneurial bug” and Barnhill joined three venture-backed medical device companies and had two successful exits after receiving his MBA from the Merage School.
His first experience was at SenoRX, a company that specialized in advanced breast cancer diagnostics and therapeutics, such as brachytherapy precision radiation. In a lead marketing role, Barnhill led the therapeutics team’s successful commercialization which eventually led to the firm’s acquisition by C.R Bard.
His next “roller-coaster ride” was as VP of marketing with RF Surgical—a company that put radio frequency chips into sponges and gauze to prevent them from being left inside a patient after a surgical procedure. Within two years, RF surgical grew from $18 to $50 million in revenue and was acquired by Medtronic for $235 million.
Barnhill said: “It’s been fun, and that’s the nice thing about Orange County. There are a lot of medical device companies. There are new companies forming all the time, and if you have a nice network, it’s like games for adults.”
When choosing locations to donate face shields, United Biologics wanted to go local. On April 24, they donated their first 1,000 face shields to Orange County Global Medical Center. This was followed up with another donation of 1,000 face shields to South Coast Global Medical Center in Santa Ana.
On May 1, Congressman Lou Correa toured United Biologics and observed their enhanced safety protocol in action.
Correa said: “I want to commend United Biologics and KPC Health for stepping up to serve their communities when it’s needed most. This is what the true American spirit is all about.”