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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Exclusive: Houston blockchain startup closes $4M series B round led by new investor

money moves

An industrial blockchain-as-a-service startup based in Houston has closed a series B funding round thanks to support from both new and returning investors.

Data Gumbo Corp., which uses its blockchain network GumboNet to optimize smart contracts for oil and gas supply chains, announced its first close in its $4 million series B funding round that was led by new investor L37, which has operations in the Bay Area and in Houston. The round also saw contribution from returning investors Equinor Ventures and Saudi Aramco Energy Venture.

The funds will go toward growing Data Gumbo's sales team, which has been busy with the company's growth. While providing their own set of challenges and obstacles, both the pandemic and drop in oil prices meant oil and gas companies are prioritizing lean operations — something DataGumbo is able to help with.

"The opportunity in all this is companies have got to cut expenses," Andrew Bruce, CEO and founder, tells InnovationMap. "What's happened to us is our sales have absolutely exploded — in a good way. We have a huge number of leads, and we have to be able to deliver on those leads."

Bruce says leading the sales growth is Bill Arend, who was hired Data Gumbo's chief commercial officer this spring. Data Gumbo also recently announced that Richard Dobbs, 30-year veteran of McKinsey and former director of the McKinsey Global Institute, has joined the board as chairman.

"Dobbs is a recognized strategic industry thinker," Bruce says in a release. "His distinct expertise will lend structure, support and validation to Data Gumbo as we experience aggressive company growth."

Of course, fundraising in this unprecedented time, isn't easy. Bruce says he and his team were able to succeed thanks to a new investor, L37, which came from an introduction within Bruce's network.

"Data Gumbo is the category leader for industrial smart contracts, which is an inevitable next step in digital transformation of the oil and gas industry," says Kemal Farid, a partner in L37, in a statement. "There is a lack of transparency, visibility and accuracy between counterparts of contracts that increases the costs of doing business and this has been greatly exacerbated by the current business landscape. We look forward to applying our experience to propel the company along its journey to bring transactional certainty and cost efficiency to commercial relationships."

Additionally, Bruce says he's very proud of his company's return investors, who are also clients of DataGumbo.

"[We also have] the continuous support by our original investors — Aramco and Equinor — they invested in us not just once but twice," Bruce says. "They have been tremendously supportive, not just from an investor perspective, but also proving the value. We've got multiple projects starting with both of those companies."

Bruce says he already has eyes for another venture capital round — perhaps sometime next year — for Data Gumbo, which has raised $14.8 million to date. However, the company isn't far from profitability and growth from that avenue too.

"We're going to have the luxury of choice," Bruce says. "We want to grow as aggressively as possible so we are probably going to go the venture capital route."


GumboNet: Smart Contacts Made Simple www.youtube.com

Houston coworking space to donate office space to startups affected by COVID-19

need some space?

A Houston-based commercial real estate company in the historic East Downtown District, is giving away free space to two startups who have been negatively impacted by the COVID-19 crisis.

The Headquarters is currently accepting submissions from startups, founders, and entrepreneurs to be considered for free office space through Friday, October 2, with recipients set to be announced the week of October 5th.

Founded in 2014 by brother and sister duo, Peter and Devin Licata, Headquarters provides flexible office space and suites to startups and young businesses in a variety of industries. Inspired by creative office spaces in Denver and coworking sites to create a completely new way to work.

Devin and Peter Licata founded Headquarters six years ago. Photo courtesy of Headquarters

"For Devin and I being local Houstonians," says Peter. "It was very exciting to bring a product to Houston that we had never seen before in the city. When we started the search for a building, we had a very specific idea of how we wanted it to look and feel, and the amenities we wanted to provide."

The building located on 3302 Canal St, was repurposed from an old warehouse built in the mid 20th century. The Licatas spent about eight months designing the building, which had sat vacant for seven years. The design features, evoke a feeling of a corporate campus but for small business which works perfectly for COVID-19 social distancing measures.

"One of the things we wanted was really wide hallways," says Devin. "Typical hallways here are about seven feet, when we were working with our architect we said, double it. The specific visuals are there to invoke a feeling, with an interior courtyard, and lots of natural light.

"Our architects weren't used to working with clients in commercial real estate who were designing based on an office where we would want to work, instead of a client who wanted to maximize every square footage."

The coworking space is adhering to social distancing recommendations. Photo courtesy of Headquarters

The wide open spaces, with hallways over 13 feet wide, high ceilings about 18 feet tall, and HVAC unit that does not recirculate air, along with the office suites that are on average 2 to 3 times larger than other coworking spaces allows all of their tenants to practice social distancing in a safe environment.

Headquarters is monitoring infection rates locally, while following safety guidelines to operate their facility safely. All guests are required to answer health screening questions upon entry and wear face coverings. They continue to clean all common areas and high touch surfaces with EPA-approved products and provide hand sanitizer at all points of entry.

With 35,000 square feet in total and 45 office suites, the Licatas say they chose the East End as their headquarters because of its close proximity to downtown and renewing growth of the community.

"The East End was an obvious location for us, we had been looking for buildings in the area for other development opportunities," says Devin. "Given it's proximity to downtown and its access to three different freeways, from a commuter standpoint it was really important as well as the community aspect."

Headquarters is located just east of downtown Houston. Photo courtesy of Headquarters

Mental health gets a spotlight at free online summit for Houston employers

Mental Health Matters

While the world's population has been focused on the physical effects of COVID-19, there hasn't always been as much attention paid to mental health amid the pandemic.

Every socio-economic class, demographic group, and industry has felt the strain, brought on by social isolation, job instability, and increased stress.

"It quickly became clear that these preventative measures, while recommended for reducing the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace, were not providing the feeling of security for company employees that we had hoped for," says Next Level Urgent Care's chief medical officer, Karen Rakers, MD. "We needed to address employee mental health."

Next Level Urgent Care began COVID-19 testing across its 15 urgent care locations in March, and shortly after expanded into Houston workplaces, providing onsite COVID-19 testing and temperature checks for large employers in the Houston area.

When it became clear that mental health required more attention than it had been getting, the Next Level Health and Wellness team worked with clinical psychologist Ilyssa Bass, PhD, to assemble a group of diverse mental health and workplace wellness professionals.

Together, they worked to address mental health stigma in the workplace and educate employers on how to implement creative solutions to address employee mental health issues.

One of the major results is the Prioritizing Workplace Wellness Summit, a free five-day virtual event taking place September 28-October 2.

Attendees can look forward to interviews with more than 25 interviews experts, including such as Sally Spencer-Thomas, Psy.D; Daryl Shorter, MD; Craig Kramer; Liz Kislik; Bill Judge, JD, LL.M; and Jeff Gorter, LMSW.

Here's a taste of what you'll discover during the summit:

  • How a multi-faceted approach to improving the mental health of an employee group leads to success
  • Which qualities make organizations resilient when responding to crises including the pandemic
  • Leadership skills and techniques that help maintain a strong workforce
  • Threat assessments and multidisciplinary workplace violence prevention programs to keep an employee group safe
  • How now, more than ever, technology can help reach the masses and deliver easily accessible solutions for common mental health issues
  • Steps employers can take to reduce stigma in their organizations
  • Why the time for action is right now during the pandemic

As a bonus, each free ticket also comes with access to an exclusive new report, "The Top Workplace Wellness and Mental Health Strategies."

Sign up to discover what's working today to optimize mental health in the workplace — your employees will thank you.