Lehigh Valley LaunchBox grant recipients help COVID-19 relief efforts

woman sewing at a table

Lehigh Valley LaunchBox grant recipient LaToya Spence has sewn face masks to support medical personnel.

Credit: LaToya Spence

CENTER VALLEY, Pa. — Three Lehigh Valley LaunchBox grant recipients have turned their unique skills, experiences and companies toward a variety of potential COVID-19 relief efforts.

Neil Deshmukh, a 17-year-old student attending Moravian Academy, received a grant from Lehigh Valley LaunchBox (LVLB) for his app PlantumAI, which helps detect, diagnose and educate about treatment options for plant diseases and to assist under-resourced farmers. After learning about the intense shortages of personal protective equipment for healthcare workers, he began 3D-printing personal protective equipment parts to help local medical personnel after gaining permission to repurpose his school’s 3D printers.

Deshmukh was inspired to begin this effort after hearing about the personal protective equipment shortage firsthand from his family members and friends who are medical professionals at local hospitals.

printed PPE pieces

Neil Deshmukh donated 3D printed parts including more than 50 headgear face shields, more than 25 hood connectors, more than 25 flanges, and 12 stethoscopes, and is still working to continue and optimize the printing setup.

Credit: Neil Deshmukh

“Currently, my printer setup can produce more than a total of 15 prints of personal protective equipment per day. I hope to increase this number in the coming days so that my weekly donations help greater amounts of people,” Deshmukh said. “I'm printing all the material at my house, but my school, Moravian Academy, worked to lend me their 3D printers to do so. Mrs. Arnold and Mr. Deal from my school helped me get all the resources together, like the 3D printers and filament from campus, so I truly would not have been able to undertake this project without their continued support and assistance.”

Deshmukh is not the only LVLB grant recipient leveraging his talent to help with equipment shortages for healthcare workers. LaToya Spence received a grant from LVLB in 2018 to support her business, Sewing With Jirah. In recent weeks, she has begun to sew fabric face masks to help support medical personnel.

“Everyone has been loving the masks and the quality of them. I tried my best to make them as durable as possible because I know they will be washed a lot,” Spence said, adding that she has been complimented on her fabric choices. "I have friends and family that I know love to be stylish so I figured if I tried to make them look cute or cool they'd feel good and comfortable about wearing them.”

Tom Dubreuil, director of student affairs, Penn State Lehigh Valley, might not be able to sew masks, but that hasn’t stopped him from using his talent portraying Santa Claus to help bring comfort and joy to children during these uncertain times. Christmas City Santa, LLC, a company based on Dubreuil realistic, bearded Santa character, received an LVLB grant in spring 2019. As the "Christmas City Santa," Dubreuil said his goal during the widespread closures from COVID-19 is to help parents keep their children entertained at home, provide reassurance, and help encourage children to “stay on the 'nice' list.”

During his weekly story time, which are broadcast through Facebook Live, Dubreuil reads a children’s book, talks about "his" reindeer and answers questions. He recently began to share stories and drawings that children have created and mailed to Santa.

“The response has been wonderful,” Dubreuil said. “Using word-of-mouth communication and Facebook, I’ve spread the word about the story time. My first four story times combined have been viewed more than 3,100 times. The NBC station in western Massachusetts where I grew up even did a story about what I’ve been doing and so has local station WFMZ 69 News.”

To join the weekly chats, visit the Santa Kringle (Christmas City Santa) Facebook page at 7 p.m. on Wednesday nights. Previously recorded story times also are available to view on his page.

young kids looking at laptop

Two young Santa fans watch Tom Dubreuil as Christmas City Santa during his weekly Facebook Live broadcast.

Credit: Dennille Schuler

Lehigh Valley LaunchBox (LVLB) is an early-stage business accelerator program for entrepreneurs. As a signature program of Invent Penn State, LVLB partners with a network of community and University partners to offer continuing support to small business owners and guides them through every step of their startup journey.

Information regarding the Invent Penn State initiative is available online.


Dennille Schuler

Public Relations Specialist
Penn State Lehigh Valley

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