COVID-19 has sparked an explosion of industrial innovation in the capital region


CLIFTON PARK – Necessity is the mother of invention and just over a year ago there was a lot of need, thanks to the pandemic.

Protective masks were scarce, as were bottles of hand sanitizer. Hospitals made a desperate appeal for more ventilators and drug companies were operating at “warp speed” to design a vaccine as well as treatments against the spread of the virus.

COVID-19 remains with us, even as many critical shortages have eased. But those desperate months in 2020 have had a lasting impact on society, including the business sector, where unexpected actors have found themselves propelled to the forefront of an effort to fight the pandemic.

In the capital region, distillers have turned to manufacturing alcohol-based hand sanitizers and at least one manufacturing company, Precision Valve & Automation, has retooled and started building ventilators. Researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute got to work building a special ultraviolet box that could disinfect things like masks, while others at school developed smartphone apps designed to help people avoid dense crowds.

The efforts evoked the wartime industrialization that occurred during World War II as government and industry worked together toward a common goal. And like the war, which has led to innovations in optics, radar, aeronautics, medicine and other fields, the fight against COVID will likely spawn new industries.

Now, as shortages of pandemic medical supplies have abated, many early players in the Capital Region are returning to normal, but their rapid innovations will nonetheless have a lasting effect.

Jumping

“I still have people buying it,” said Matthew Jager, of Albany’s Yankee Distillers, of the gallons of hand sanitizer he started making last year. While his focus is on premium whiskey again, Jager still has several hundred gallons of sanitizer in the distillery.

The initial conversion was straightforward. Jager knew he could mix denatured ethanol and glycerin in batches to produce an effective disinfectant. What was confusing was the multitude of regulations and rules from the Food and Drug Administration on how to do this.

In addition to navigating bureaucracy, Jager also faced supply shortages, including a lack of containers for the new product. He ended up using what was available, namely plastic milk jugs, which had warning signs that said it was a disinfectant and not a dairy product.

He gave it away and sold it, and after a while people came to the distillery to refuel. Like his whiskey, Jager decided to go higher end, passing his ingredients through a carbon filter to make sure it was extra pure.

“I turned all of these people into hand sanitizer snobs,” Jager said with a chuckle. “It was kind of a neat thing.”

Manufacture of fans

Twenty minutes north of Clifton Park, the staff at Precision Valve & Automation knew early on they could help with what was then a severe shortage of fans.

The company manufactures valves, automated devices such as those that spray coating materials. Some of their products were already used in fans. Once then-Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo called for more ventilators they were able to assemble machines that use a bag mask that pushes air in and out of a patient’s lungs.

These were simple devices as the fans ran, but they got the job done and could be built for under $ 8,000, which was a steal by modern fan standards.


“FDA clearance was the biggest hurdle,” said Frank Hart, general manager of sales and marketing for PVA. The actual construction of the devices was not that difficult and it took about six weeks from the initial plan to production.

Ultimately, doctors relaxed their use of ventilators and built around 100 units, many of which were exported to Africa and Asia.

They stopped production and returned to their main activity, but the exercise also opened up business opportunities. The federal approval process has earned PVA an ISO 9001, or International Organization for Standardization, certification.

This is pretty much akin to a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for industrial devices such as valves. As a result, it is easier for them to export their valves to Mexico and China, where about 60% of these sales go.

The company is on track to surpass its 2019 sales and the 200-person organization is looking for new employees, although Hart notes that every company he knows is hiring these days.

Ultraviolet, polymers, applications

The pandemic has created an explosion in the search for new approaches to personal protective equipment and nowhere is this more true than at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

While the mask shortage was at its peak, researchers at RPI’s Center for Lighting Enabled Systems & Applications built a light box that bombards masks with ultraviolet “C” waves that kill the COVID virus. Construction of the closet-sized machine took about two weeks and was sent to Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, which worked with the school on a number of Covid protection developments.

The hospital tested the machine in its biohazard lab and found it effective with 120 seconds of UV exposure on all sides of the mask.

“The success was that we could kill the virus and determine the dose,” said Deepak Vashishth, director of the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies and professor of biomedical engineering.

As with PVA, the immediate need for such machines was reduced after the shortage of masks diminished. But the construction of the machine was a proof of concept, showing that it was a viable approach to sterilization despite not actually being used.

Vashishth believes such devices could be useful in places where there may be a shortage of sterile masks and other equipment. Much of that, he said, depends on future calculations as to whether they can be done affordably. They heard from a company in India that has expressed interest in building the devices on a commercial scale, but it is not clear what those plans are.

Also in development at RPI, a special antiviral coating could be sprayed on masks or other medical devices on which the COVID virus could land. Helped by a grant from the National Science Foundation in April 2020 at the height of the mask shortage, RPI researchers Helen Zha and Ed Palermo experimented with thin polymer coatings as an antiviral agent.

Zha, an assistant professor of chemical engineering, said this contrasts with other researchers who are studying substances like copper or silver as antiviral agents.

“There are a lot of businesses in this space now,” Zha said.

There are no immediate plans for a start-up or other marketing efforts. And Zha said their main goal is to have the technology proven and made public so that people can use it in manufacturing if they want.

“This is definitely a pandemic driven innovation,” she said.

The “Study Safe” smartphone app that Kristin Bennett’s students developed at RPI was also motivated by the pandemic.

Working with the United Health Foundation, Bennett, a math and computer science professor, worked with his students to develop the app, which locates the less-traveled areas of the RPI campus, which are probably the safest places to study during a pandemic.

The app identifies anonymized Wi-Fi signals by location to map the evolution of the number of crowds and compares them to past data on crowds in those areas. The figures are also updated approximately every half hour.

“We did it using all of the undergraduate researchers,” Bennett said.


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