Australian Export Awards recognising remarkable resilience: WA Innovation keeping Australians safe through science

As Australia’s leading provider of synthetic and medicinal chemistry services, Epichem met the challenges of COVID-19 head on, by protecting its business and employees while supporting the community and launching new innovations.
Founded in Perth in 2003, Epichem creates specialised products and provide technical expertise to customers in more than 40 countries in the pharmaceutical, mining, agriculture, and animal health sectors. It exports 80 per cent of its products and services to the US and Europe, so coronavirus has had a major impact.

In early 2020, when the pandemic hit, the company had to put around A$800,000 worth of international project work on hold indefinitely and halt many internal R&D projects. It faced shortages of essential supplies, and reduced income delayed critical equipment purchases and threatened the business.

Innovation meets community spirit

In response, Epichem launched some exciting COVID-related R&D projects, including partnering with a US-based company to gain IP rights to a carbon-neutral benchtop flow reactor prototype.
This Australian-designed technology converts biomass and waste into valuable products such as ethanol, which is used to make hand sanitiser. Epichem is now raising funding to build one in Australia.
The company is also partnering with the WA Government to develop dyed hand sanitisers that show which parts of your hands are not sanitised, and a ‘smart-surface’ spray that destabilises the COVID-19 virus on hospital surfaces.
To keep its business afloat, Epichem leveraged its global supply chain network to secure six months of critical supplies, and invested in equipment with leasing arrangements and accessed government support initiatives to manage cash flow. Staff work from purpose-built laboratories, so Epichem introduced COVID-safe practices and donated hand sanitiser to staff and their families. Regular communication was key, with daily COVID updates sent out.
“During situations like this, leadership comes to the fore,” says Colin La Galia, Chief Executive Officer. “It was important to give the team confidence that the leadership team was taking steps to protect the business and also to protect them.”
Through all this change and business uncertainty, Epichem was aware that health and aged care organisations were facing shortages of hand sanitiser, so the company donated thousands of bottles.
“I remember going to one cancer organisation and I was welcomed with tears because they were down to two bottles,” says Colin. “What really hit home was the importance of the community coming together.”

When local gin distilleries reached out to Epichem for help, Colin and the chemistry team didn’t hesitate. They provided free advice on converting gin into ethanol and then into sanitisers, so these small businesses could continue to earn revenue and keep their staff.

“COVID has hurt Epichem: projects are on hold, cash flow is tight,” says Colin. “But we’re still discovering novel drugs for patients, still supporting our community, still making a difference by being the difference.
“To face the challenges of 2020, adaptation is key. Small businesses cannot stop at plan B or C, but must be prepared with a robust, multi-faceted risk mitigation strategy. Focus on what can be controlled and plan for every conceivable eventuality.”