Ben Franklin 4 PA
Tech companies tweaking their products & service lines to help in a worldwide fight against COVID-19
BY JON O'CONNELL, STAFF WRITER / PUBLISHED: APRIL 25, 2020
Photo: SEAN MCKEAG / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER A prototype steam oven that will be used to disinfect personal protective equipment sits Tuesday on the production floor of the Protective Systems Automation factory in Duryea.
Photo: SEAN MCKEAG / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Face masks sit in a prototype steam oven that will be used to disinfect personal protective equipment Tuesday at the Protective Systems Automation factory in Duryea.
DURYEA — Michael McHale was on a virtual conference call with some of his engineers about three weeks ago when the U.S. Veterans Affairs department called.
The owner and chief executive at Production Systems Automation LLC, an engineering and manufacturing firm, sells ovens that kill bedbugs to the VA for linens.
The Social Security Administration also buys them to kill pests that infect document storage vaults.
But on that day, the VA wanted to know if those ovens could kill a different kind of bug, the new coronavirus, and disinfect N95 respirator masks, which are persistently hard to come by.
His gut reaction: no way.
But while he was on the phone, his engineers overheard the request and began testing his assumption, starting with a Google search.
“My guys are typing in: ‘What temperature does COVID-19 die?’ ” he said.
As tragedies have always done, the coronavirus has unleashed the innovators.
Companies in Northeast Pennsylvania are tweaking their products and services to help bring to heel COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
McHale and PSA have a prototype and they’re seeking emergency approval from the Food and Drug Administration to sell their personal protection equipment, or PPE, oven.
Those N95 masks were never meant to be sanitized, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says in times of crisis and short supply, vaporous hydrogen peroxide, ultraviolet germicidal irradiation and moist heat hold the most promise for decontamination.
He builds them inside the gutted shells of commercial refrigerators, and has relationships in the refrigeration industry, so he can easily scale up for global distribution quickly, he said.
McHale’s team is working on several models, including a smaller one, about the size of a dormitory refrigerator, that nursing homes and health clinics can use.
“He’s been able to react to the coronavirus and create a product that allows reuse of PPE,” said Ken Okrepkie, regional manager for Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Northeastern Pennsylvania.
The organization directs state economic development money to build up the tech sector. It’s provided funding for PSA in the past, as well as other firms that are now striking out on their own against COVID-19, using tools they already have.
Ben Franklin’s mothership organization, the Ben Franklin Technology Development Authority, on Thursday awarded $1 million each to its four regional partner groups to help struggling start-up companies and encourage new innovation. Each group will match the authority funding with another $1 million.
“No sector of our economy is untouched,” Ryan E. Glenn, the authority’s statewide initiatives director, said in a statement. “But Pennsylvania’s innovation economy is especially vulnerable. Most economic recovery programs only provide access to capital for larger corporations and more established businesses, or the programs are narrowly targeted at qualified small businesses, so they don’t apply to startup firms and entrepreneurs.”
Thinning the waiting room
As more hospitals and doctor’s offices prioritize virtual care and telemedicine, business is booming at Signallamp Health Inc.
“We’re growing exponentially because of it,” said co-founder and chief executive Drew Kearney.
His company, with about 90 employees, serves doctor’s offices in 10 states, helping them care for chronically ill patients between visits with telephone calls.
Signallamp nurses now also help doctor’s offices in COVID-19 hot zones where they can triage patients who have symptoms and need guidance on whether to get tested.
Now that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services is writing waivers on telemedicine that, broadly speaking, allow doctors to treat more patients remotely — and get paid for it — Signallamp has become even more relevant.
“That represents a major change,” Kearney said of the CMS waivers. “It’s making us more essential to how our clients have had to transition to telehealth.”
Business owners are getting ready for an economy after COVID-19 fades. At Signallamp, that might mean hiring more nurses to meet rising demand.
“I think health care has been unnecessarily reluctant to bring technology and a service model that we use in every other industry, regulated or otherwise,” Kearney said. “I think many of the waivers and the current necessity is going to drive significant change.”
High-tech, high-design masks
Late last month, Noble Biomaterials, a high-tech manufacturer that bonds silver with fibers for textiles, joined up with the global fashion company Chargeurs PCC to produce protective face masks.
Noble’s fibers reduce microbes and odor. The military uses them, so do health equipment and clothing manufacturers. Now they’re going into millions of masks every week.
Chargeurs, which has textile factories around the country, has a production facility in Langhorne, where it is making masks.
Other companies around the world are using X-Static, Noble’s brand of infection-prevention fabric, to make masks that create an inhospitable environment for infection to grow.
“Our technology has been clinically proven to reduce microbes and protect the surface of textiles,” chief executive Jeff Keane said in a statement. “With Chargeurs, we’ll be able to help provide more critical PPE to health care employees around the globe … we couldn’t be prouder to help in this worldwide fight.”
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