“I had a firsthand experience of what it felt like to be locked down back in China and how it completely wiped out the concept of living a normal life,” said 19-year-old Stanford University student Jack (Bi Tian) Yuan, who was home last January in China when his country began stemming the spread of COVID-19 by using PPE and quarantining cities.
Almost one year after the coronavirus outbreak, he tells Spend Matters about how the events he saw turned him into the unlikely owner of a medical supply chain company that delivers personal protective equipment (PPE) all over the world.
“We do believe the demand for good, quality PPE supplies will stick around for another two or three years,” said Yuan, who founded Tianchi Medical when he returned to California as the crisis was becoming a worldwide pandemic. “Right now, we’re looking to get into more hospitals and establish those long-term relationships with the end client so even after COVID-19 dies down, we’d still supply doctors, healthcare workers with good quality PPE from China or Southeast Asia. … We’re continuing to re-invest in the industry.”
While it seems like the world has grappled with COVID-19 for ages, the beginning of the worldwide disruption has officially marked its one-year anniversary.
The World Health Organization first raised concern about mystery ailments on Dec. 31, 2019, in Wuhan, China — the city that was the first hit by the virus and was locked down in a national response. Events there rippled across the world — especially on the supply chain and procurement fronts because many companies around the world have production facilities in that part of China.
“I started to look into numbers,” Yuan said. “I looked at how COVID’s numbers related to those of SARS or MERS in the past. I looked at what the Chinese government did to prevent the spread of COVID-19. They locked down entire cities.”
Seeing the crisis up close in China, he anticipated that COVID-19 would rampantly spread throughout the world. So Yuan packed two suitcases of masks to take back to California with him. As a freshman at Stanford and just 18 years old, what Yuan saw in China stayed with him. He started making plans to procure more supplies.
The whole world went into overdrive in the spring and summer to ensure proper supplies of key disease-fighting products. And although the world is shifting into a new procurement issue — the mass vaccination effort — PPE is still being relied upon to help prevent the spread of coronavirus.
Since his company’s inception in early 2020, Tianchi has collaborated with hospitals, governments, nonprofits and businesses to help bring critical PPE to organizations around the world. It has already supplied more than 600 million PPE products and recorded a revenue of $200 million. The ability to create such a successful supply chain, especially as manufacturers around the globe were pressed thin, is remarkable.
“Supply chain, at its very basic level, serves to drive value by moving goods,” Yuan said. “As an individual, I could only do so much. But if I had a team that could deliver hundreds of millions of masks or gloves to the hospitals, doctors, healthcare workers who needed them at the right time, I would’ve done something great. Lives could be saved. At the end of the day, that’s really all that matters — that people are being helped. People are being productive with the masks that we provide. If that happens, then we’re happy.”
One of Tianchi’s most impressive accomplishments has been surpassing 1 million donations of PPE to nonprofit organizations in need. Some of the beneficiaries include Ronald McDonald House Charities of Philadelphia, Masks2all, Pamela & Ajay Raju Foundation, Paper Bridges and the COVID-19 Mutual Aid Solidarity Network. This way, people from all communities can proactively protect themselves and others from the coronavirus.
“I saw the lack of infrastructure, the lack of resources, lack of opportunities,” Yuan said. “When coronavirus hit, the first thing that came to mind was that if anybody was going to be the last to receive quality PPE, it would be … those who don’t have as much access to basic normal human needs — not just masks or isolation gowns.”
Tianchi has helped hundreds of organizations around the world respond to the coronavirus crisis. Yuan got to work right away looking at supply and demand numbers, negotiating with suppliers and finding the right products for his company with the help of a fellow Stanford student.
Yuan expanded the team in April, giving himself time to really consider the strategy behind the supply chain moves he was making. In that moment, Yuan expanded Tianchi into Brazil, the United States, and finally, into Canada and Europe. Where COVID-19 was going, Yuan and his small but growing company followed.
“I haven’t taken any supply chain classes,” Yuan said. “In the very beginning, a lot of it was just hussle. Eventually it turned into something where I could think about supply chain management strategically. I was able to talk to existing veterans in the supply chain industry and sometimes even recruit them to be on my team. The toughest part was persuasion and establishing credibility as an 18-year-old.”
COVID-19 is hard on any college student right now. From online classes to an uncertain job and internship market, college looks a lot different now than it did even a year ago. For many, they dealt by lounging in sweatpants, baking sourdough and learning TikTok dances to tide themselves over the social distancing guidelines.
Yuan, however, forged ahead. He took the quarantine as a call to action. Although he is majoring in neuro technology and not supply chain management, he said the whole thing is really about the relationships he’s built with people. Yuan says one of his favorite things to do is meet new people, something this opportunity has given him. He also knows that he made one positive step toward fighting this humanitarian crisis.
Tianchi pivoted some of its focus this fall when wildfires threatened states in the western US. While continuing to supply PPE for COVID-19 efforts, Yuan also added victims of the California wildfires to his list of donation efforts.
On the coronavirus front, Yuan said the company will continue to watch demand shift over time to continue supplying PPE in the coming months and years as the world relies on it.
Yuan said he will also continue studying neuro tech while maybe catching up with a good book or playing basketball with his friends — if he can find the free time.