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

 
 

Ty Audronis founded Tempest Droneworx to put drone data to work. Photo courtesy of Tempest Droneworx

Ty Audronis quite literally grew up in Paradise. But the Northern California town was destroyed by wildfire in 2018, including Audronis’ childhood home.

“That’s why it’s called the Campfire Region,” says the founder, who explains that the flames were started by a spark off a 97-year-old transmission line.

But Audronis, who has literally written the book on designing purpose-built drones — actually, more than one — wasn’t going to sit back and let it happen again. Currently, wildfire prevention is limited to the “medieval technology” of using towers miles apart to check for smoke signals.

“By the time you see smoke signals, you’ve already got a big problem,” Audronis says.

His idea? To replace that system with real-time, three-dimensional, multi-spectral mapping, which exactly where his company, Tempest Droneworx, comes in.

When asked how he connected with co-founder Dana Abramowitz, Audronis admits that it was Match.com — the pair not only share duties at Tempest, they are engaged to be married. It was a 2021 pre-SXSW brainstorming session at their home that inspired the pair to start Tempest.

When Audronis mentioned his vision of drone battalions, where each is doing a specialized task, Abramowitz, a serial entrepreneur and founder who prefers to leave the spotlight to her partner, told him that he shouldn’t give the idea away at a conference, they should start a company. After all, Audronis is a pioneer in the drone industry.

“Since 1997, I’ve been building multicopters,” he says.

Besides publishing industry-standard tomes, he took his expertise to the film business. But despite its name, Tempest is a software company and does not make drones.

That software is called Harbinger. Audronis explains that the real-time management and visualization solution is viewable on practically any device, including mobile or augmented reality. The system uses a video game engine for viewing, but as Audronis puts it, “the magic happens” on the back end.

Harbinger is not just drone-agnostic, but can use crowd-sourced data as well as static sensors. With the example of wildfires in mind, battalions can swarm an affected area to inform officials, stopping a fire before it gets out of hand. But fires are far from Harbinger’s only intended use.

The civilian version of Harbinger will be available for sale at the end of 2023 or beginning of 2024. For military use, Navy vet Audronis says that the product just entered Technical Readiness Level (TRL) 5, which means that they are about 18 months away from a full demo. The latest news for Tempest is that earlier this month, it was awarded a “Direct to Phase II” SBIR (Government Small Business Innovation Research) contract with the United States Department of the Air Force.

Not bad for a company that was, until recently, fully bootstrapped. He credits his time with the Houston Founder Institute, from which he graduated last February, and for which he now mentors, with many of the connections he’s made, including SBIR Advisors, who helped handle the complex process of getting their SBIR contract.

And he and Abramowitz have no plans to end their collaborations now that they’re seeing growth.

“Our philosophy behind [our business] isn’t keeping our cards close to our vest,” says Audronis. “Any potential competitors, we want to become partners.”

The company was just the two founders until five weeks ago, when Tempest’s size doubled, including a full-time developer. Once Tempest receives its SIBR check, the team will grow again to include more developers. They are currently looking for offices in the city. As Audronis says, Tempest Droneworx is “100-percent made in Houston.” Paradise may have been lost, but with Harbinger soon to be available, such a disaster need never happen again.

Dana Abramowitz and Ty Audronis co-founded Tempest Droneworks. Photo courtesy of Tempest Droneworx

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