making better masks

Physics professor at University of Houston puts nanotech to work to fight the spread of COVID-19

The new technology from University of Houston could make any mask more resistant to viruses. Photo courtesy of Seamus Curran/Integricote

The start of 2020, though most didn't know it at the time, meant a huge change to society. Though coronavirus didn't yet seem to be an issue for the United States, the world was entering into a new normal where wearing face masks in public is common and necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

"We left normal in December," says Seamus Curran, a professor of physics at the University of Houston, "and, when everyone was planning their New Year's resolutions, little did we know that the old normal of before is gone. None of us saw that life passing away — and it was taken away by a bug 1,000 times smaller than lice. And like lice, it's going to be with us for a long time."

To that end, Curran, who is well-known for his work commercializing nanotechnologies, is pulling from his past to deal with a future demand. The professor is using a hydrophobic coating he developed nearly 10 years ago to improve the ability of surgical masks to protect against transmission of the virus.

It's no secret that good face masks are a dire, worldwide need. But Curran notes that standard masks are "somewhat porous, and especially if they get wet, they can allow the virus to penetrate." People infected with the virus, he adds, could spread it even through a mask, while people who aren't sick could still become infected, despite wearing a less-protective mask.

Curran calls N95 masks, "the gold standard, able to filter very small particles and offering better protection than standard surgical masks." But he notes that they are hard to manufacture, and global demand is for tens of millions of items. His work will make masks impervious to water, thus improving protection, he explains.

That means those who already own masks are in luck: Curran's team is planning to sell spray for the hydrophobic coatings so that people can apply it themselves at home or at work. "However, it's cheaper and far more effective to be able to apply it in large batch quantities that manufacturers can do," Curran adds.

The globally minded Curran has only one local requirement: "We will only sell to U.S. manufacturers that manufacture here in the U.S. It's not a limiting factor and may change in the future, but right now, I have to deal with my community here in Houston, Texas, and the U.S. It has to be my priority."

University of Houston's Dr. Seamus Curran. Photo courtesy of University of Houston

Curran and his team are working though the process to make sure their coatings are compliant with all federal rules. "Sometimes, this is making sure your materials are registered and allowed," he says. "Sometimes it's making sure the products follow relevant EPA and FDA guidelines. However, we are very close, as in weeks, and not some arbitrary academic timeline in the distant future."

He first launched a nanotechnology business in 2013, according to UH. His company, Integricote, based at the UH Technology Bridge, focuses on manufacturing sealers for masonry, wood, and concrete. The professor has developed nanotech coatings for fabrics since 2011, technology that he now is using to demonstrate a way to provide more protection against SARS and COVID-19.

Curran, who often says he hates to "play defense," hopes to get a jump on the virus spread with his new technology and take a proactive approach to a long-term issue. "Remember, H1N1 affected 61 million Americans and 12,500 people died from it between 2009 and 2010," he notes. "Do we think that's it? Did we think Ike was the last big hurricane to hit us, or do we expect more? Yet, we have compensated for this and found a way to be resilient and have a normal life."

Technical and scientific in his work, the passionate professor says he is galvanized by a simple, primal motive. "This is personal, this virus has threatened my family and I'm not sitting back, ideally, just letting this happen," Curran says. "I'm just like any other husband, father, son, brother, and uncle: I will do all I can to protect those dearest to me and I will not have it any other way."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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Building Houston

 
 

New study shows Houston has minority-owned startups than any other Texas city. Photo by Tim Leviston/Getty Images

Both Houston and the state of Texas earned high rankings on a recent study by Self Financial that looked at the percentage of minority-owned startups in regions across the U.S.

"Today there are nearly 170 thousand minority-owned startups in the U.S., employing over 700 thousand people and generating close to $100 billion in annual revenue," the report said. "Based on demographic trends, these numbers are likely to grow as the population continues to diversify on racial and ethnic lines."

According to the report, about 30 percent of startups in Greater Houston are minority-owned. This is the fifth highest percentage in the country. There are nearly 5,600 minority-owned startups in the MSA, employing more than 22,700 people and bringing in more than $3.1 billion annually, the report found.

The Bayou City outranked New York but just a tenth of a percentage. But neighboring San Antonio edged out the Bayou City for the No. 4 spot, with roughly 31 percent of startups being minority-owned.

The top three cities on the list were all in California. The San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara metro had the highest percentage of minority-owned start ups. Roughly 46 percentage of startups there are minority-owned. The Los Angeles area and San Bernardino area followed in the second and third spots, respectively.

Dallas was the only other Texas metro to make the cut. According to the study, roughly 24 percent of startups there are minority-owned, earning it a No. 9 spot on the list.

The state earned a No. 4 spot on a similar ranking. According to that report, nearly 27 percent of startups in Texas are minority-owned and are responsible for employing more than 87,000 individuals and turn out roughly $11.5 billion in sales annually.

Still, Self Financial argues that minorities are underrepresented in the startup economy in cities, states, and throughout the U.S.

"Non-Hispanic whites, who represent around 60 percent of the U.S. population, own nearly 80 percent of the nation's startup businesses," the report says.

In Houston, nearly 64 percent of the population is considered a minority. And yet, those individuals only represent about 30 percent of startup ownership. Even in top-ranked San Jose the gap is wide. The population in the metro has a 68 percent minority share, and only 46 percent of startups are minority-owned.

St. Louis had the narrowest margin among large, high-rated metros. Minorities represent about 26 percent of the population there, and 25 percent go startups in the city are minority-owned.

In Texas minorities represent about 59 percent of the population, but only 27 percent of startup ownership. Nationwide minorities represent about 40 percent of the population but own about 20 percent of startups, according to the study..

Nationally minorities are most represented in the start-up economy in the accommodation, food services, and retail sectors. And the report adds that the demographic has faced exceptional challenges in 2020—from a business perspective, the largest roadblock was (and is often) access to capital.

"Minority households have lower pre-existing levels of wealth and savings to put towards a new business, while banks and other creditors are less likely to approve loans for Black or Hispanic small-business owners than they are for white business owners," the report says. "Without upfront capital to invest in a growing business, minority entrepreneurs struggle to run and scale their operations.

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