HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 52

Houston scientist taps nanotech in masks and air filters to use to prevent COVID-19 spread

University of Houston professor and entrepreneur, Seamus Curran, has pivoted amid the pandemic to use his nanotechnology expertise to help reduce the spread of COVID-19. Photo courtesy of Integricote

For over a decade, Seamus Curran, a physics professor at the University of Houston, has worked on his nanotechnology coating substance. He first thought the innovation could be used on fabrics and textile coating, but he realized, once getting acquainted with the industry, he realized there wasn't an interest for a hydrophobic coating that could be used to prevent the spread of germs — at least, not yet.

"Like anything small startup company, one of the things you have to learn is you have to pivot — or you will die," says Curran, who had created his company Integricote (neé C-Voltaics) to take his innovation to market.

So pivot is what he did. Integricote now markets toward coating and sealing materials within the construction industry — wood, concrete, etc. — to protect from water damage and rotting. As Curran shares on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, business was growing steadily. That is until COVID-19 hit.

His construction coating business slowed, much like the rest of business across the country, and classes at UH switched to online. Curran used this newfound time at home to dig deeper into the details of the virus, when an idea hit him.

"I learned the virus traveled in a wet medium," Curran says, "(our coating) is hydrophobic, meaning we can stop it from penetrating any fabrics."

Curran worked to create hydrophobic facemasks using his sealant, and the technology was lauded and covered by various news organizations. He created a new company under Integricote, called Curran Biotech, and he started thinking of the next pandemic-proof innovation he could create using his sealant.

"The big thing for me when we were shut down was that people couldn't go to work or school. The country can't live that way — but you can't send people back to work in a world that's not safe," Curran says. "How do you create a safer environment? That's the thing that really got me going in the beginning in the summer. We looked at filters."

Curran, learning more about air filters than he ever cared to, realized that even the most expensive air filters can only protect from 10 to 25 percent of viruses. And most buildings' HVAC systems would have to be replaced completely to allow for these pricier, more protective filters.

"So, you'd have to replace your equipment and your filter prices go up — and you're still not blocking the virus," Curran says.

Curran Biotech's solution is a spray coating that can be used on air filters to make them more protected from COVID-19 spread.

Curran shared more about his nanotechnology innovation — as well as his excitement for being named one of MassChallenge Texas's finalist within the 2020 Houston cohort — in the episode of the podcast. You can listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


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For over a year now, scientists have been testing wastewater for COVID-19. Now, the public can access that information. Photo via Getty Images

In 2020, a group of researchers began testing Houston's wastewater to collect data to help identify trends at the community level. Now, the team's work has been rounded up to use as an online resource.

The Houston Health Department and Rice University launched the dashboard on September 22. The information comes from samples collected from the city's 39 wastewater treatment plants and many HISD schools.

"This new dashboard is another tool Houstonians can use to gauge the situation and make informed decisions to protect their families," says Dr. Loren Hopkins, chief environmental science officer for the health department and professor in the practice of statistics at Rice University, in a news release. "A high level of virus in your neighborhood's wastewater means virus is spreading locally and you should be even more stringent about masking up when visiting public places."

The health department, Houston Water, Rice University, and Baylor College of Medicine originally collaborated on the wastewater testing. Baylor microbiologist Dr. Anthony Maresso, director of BCM TAILOR Labs, led a part of the research.

"This is not Houston's first infectious disease crisis," Maresso says in an earlier news release. "Wastewater sampling was pioneered by Joseph Melnick, the first chair of Baylor's Department of Molecular Virology and Microbiology, to get ahead of polio outbreaks in Houston in the 1960s. This work essentially ushered in the field of environmental virology, and it began here at Baylor. TAILOR Labs is just continuing that tradition by providing advanced science measures to support local public health intervention."

It's an affordable way to track the virus, says experts. People with COVID-19 shed viral particles in their feces, according to the release, and by testing the wastewater, the health department can measure important infection rate changes.

The dashboard, which is accessible online now, is color-coded by the level of viral load in wastewater samples, as well as labeled with any recent trend changes. Houstonians can find the interactive COVID-19 wastewater monitoring dashboard, vaccination sites, testing sites, and more information at houstonemergency.org/covid19.

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