Danby ready to make hyper-cold medical freezers to store COVID-19 vaccine

GUELPH – Jim Estill is pivoting his business again – and this time it’s a little more up his alley.

Estill is CEO of Danby Appliances Inc., which manufactures fridges and freezers and has locations in Guelph and Guelph-Eramosa.

When the pandemic hit this spring, Estill changed operations to make ventilators with Baylis Medical and, after making 10,000 ventilators, “that project is coming to a close,” he said in an interview on Nov. 27.

With the announcement that vaccines for COVID-19 are almost ready for widespread distribution, Estill is now pivoting operations to manufacture hyper-cold medical freezers required to safely store the vaccine.

“The pivot to these freezers is not as dramatic,” Estill said.

“We already make freezers, so if anyone is capable of doing this, we are.”

Danby also makes medical grade fridges, that feature temperature logging and alerts if the temperature fluctuates.

Hyper-cold freezers can keep the vaccine as cold as -80 degrees C (-122.8 F), which Pfizer and Moderna have stated the vaccine will need.

“The reason we’re doing this is because I think there could be a shortage of freezers and we need to be able to distribute the vaccine,” Estill said.

He noted the medical freezers will require two compressors and extra insulation – a design that’s fairly complex, but also a design that was already on the drawing table before the pandemic.

This is why he expects them to be coming off the assembly line in five months, in time to dovetail with distribution of the vaccine.

A well known philanthropist and Order of Canada member (2019), Estill said he doesn’t know if every hospital or health unit will need one of the freezers or whether the vaccine will be stored centrally and distributed on dry ice.

“That’s why we’re announcing this now,” he said. “We don’t want to make thousands of them only to find they aren’t needed. But if they are, we’ll be ready.”

Estill said the pandemic has really highlighted the difference between a business person and an entrepreneur.

With COVID-19, “we don’t know the path ahead,” he said.

“And this is why we need entrepreneurs who can respond to change. Bigger corporations are less able to pivot.”

He added, “We are pulling out all the stops. It’s a top priority of the company and this can make a very meaningful impact in the world.

“A vaccine is no good if it can’t be distributed or stored.”