From History Major to the Frontlines of a Pandemic

After graduating from the University of Rhode Island in 1986 with a Bachelor of Arts in history, Joe Army did something you might not expect from a history major: he headed to Wall Street. The next few years found him studying at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business for his MBA in finance and working in various industries, trying to find his niche. Then, in 1996, he received some sobering news. “My mother got diagnosed with lung cancer and COPD,” he says. “Thankfully, my older brother found a clinical trial in Boston. My mother got enrolled, and she ended up living for 17 years after that.” 

Inspired to pursue a field related to health care, Army started working for a friend’s new medical supply company in New Hampshire. From 1999-2006, he served as the CFO and then the CEO of Salient Surgical Technologies in Portsmouth, NH. Army later joined the global medical technology company Vapotherm, becoming President and CEO in June of 2012. While he already loved the work he was doing, Vapotherm’s respiratory care technology found a special place in Army’s heart. “A doctor walked me through the uses for the technology we were manufacturing — through the NICU — and I saw how we were helping babies who were no bigger than the palm of your hand,” he says. “Babies need to feel the touch of human skin, and Vapotherm’s technology allows preemie babies to be breastfed by their mothers.” 

But it wasn’t until this year as COVID-19 emerged that Army saw how his company could reach an even broader audience. “We saw the virus coming once it hit Western Europe,” Army says, “so we started scaling up production before it got bad in America.” Working out of their state-of-the-art factory in New Hampshire — where everything, including Vapotherm’s high velocity therapy devices, is manufactured — the company increased product development by 300%. The next month saw Vapotherm doubling their hired staff and ramping up production, focusing on both catering to patients’ needs and keeping Vapotherm’s employees safe. When the NIH, the CDC, and the WHO came to the conclusion that Vaoptherm’s technology belonged on the frontlines of the pandemic as an essential business, Army and his team worked day in and day out. There haven’t been many COVID-19 hotspots in the world where Vapotherm’s technology can’t be found. Army says he’s even found a way to incorporate his roots in studying history whilst tackling the pandemic. “We had people on our science and innovation team profile previous pandemics to get a sense of recurrence,” he says. “My history classes taught me to pay attention to the past.”

Now, Vapotherm has been spending the summer building up capacity, including checking employees’ temperatures with digital thermometers and conducting health scans as soon as anyone enters the building. “As a country, we’re going to have to come to terms with what technology to deploy,” Army says. “Having gone through so many different things while running different companies, I’ve seen a lot that can go wrong. The way I see it, we’ve also got to find a way that, when we harden our facilities to COVID-19, we don’t harden our hearts as well. We have to always remember to reach out to our fellow man.”

~Written by Chase Hoffman, Writing & Rhetoric and Anthropology Double Major, URI Class of December 2020