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

 
 

Adrianne Stone has joined Capital Factory's Houston operations as the company prioritizes digital startup interaction. Photo courtesy of Capital Factory

For years, Capital Factory has existed to promote innovation and grow startups across Texas and has expanded from its headquarters in Austin to Dallas, Houston, and beyond. In light of COVID-19, the organization has pivoted to make sure it can work with startups remotely and online.

"I think Capital Factory has successfully embraced virtual first," says Bryan Chambers, vice president of the accelerator and fund at Capital Factory. "I think it's gone well and it feels like we're just hitting our stride."

Chambers admits that the onset of the coronavirus had a great effect on Capital Factory — SXSW being canceled did its damage on the organization, which has a huge presence every year. However, cross-state startup collaboration is the driving force behind Capital Factory's Texas Manifesto.

"We're one big state, and we're one big startup ecosystem," Chambers says. "The resources across Dallas, Houston, Austin, North Texas, and San Antonio are available for everybody. Candidly, COVID aligns with that. There's no better time — COVID is erasing the boundaries in a virtual world."

In addition to navigating the transition to virtual operations, Capital Factory has also introduced its newest Houston staff member, as Adrianne Stone has started this week as venture associate for the organization. Stone received her Ph.D in Translational Biology and Molecular Medicine from Baylor College of Medicine before heading out to the West Coast and working at 23andme. She brings both her experience with health tech and Silicon Valley to her position.

"The mindset in Silicon Valley is different from how it is here in Texas — in good ways and bad ways. It was interesting to be exposed to a very potent startup vibe," Stone tells InnovationMap. "I'm looking forward to being able to meet all the cool companies, founders, and investors we have here in the Houston area."

Stone replaces Brittany Barreto, who helped in coordinating her replacement and is staying on part-time for the rest of August to help with training and immersion into the ecosystem. Barreto, who is one of the founders of the recently launched startup masterclass Founder's Compass, has also introduced a new brand called Femtech Focus, that includes a podcast where she talks to innovators in the women's health and wellness space.

"I'm ready to get back into the founder's saddle," Barreto says, adding that there's more to come for Femtech Focus.

Throughout her tenure, Barreto has overseen Capital Factory's Houston portfolio companies — both identifying potential investment opportunities and connecting startups to resources and mentors. She passes the torch to her former BCM classmate, and says she's excited to do so to a fellow Ph.D.

"The last year and a half, I've working really hard on laying this foundation. I don't want all that hard work to go away, so I cared a lot about who was going to take my position," she says. "I wanted to make sure that all my founders had someone who cared about them as much as I do."

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