Startups of COVID-19 accelerator work to solve pandemic problems

As the COVID-19 pandemic remains a global crisis, some Missouri businesses are working to alleviate the impact of the coronavirus.

A select few of these businesses were chosen as part of the Black & Veatch Ignite X COVID-19 Response Accelerator, which aims to help scale businesses that help to save lives, assist communities and protect the economy. The program launched in March.

Seven of the 18 companies that are part of the accelerator are based in Missouri. A total of around 300 companies applied for it.

Black & Veatch, the Overland Park, Kansas-based engineering firm, has committed a minimum of $250,000 to the overall program in the form of grants or other services.

The accelerator held a virtual showcase July 22 to allow the selected businesses to share the solutions they provide during the pandemic.

“The Ignite X COVID-19 Response Accelerator is full of companies who are building, growing and scaling solutions that will soften COVID-19’s impact on communities, while preparing the company’s core business for a strong post-pandemic future,” said Jason Grill, who hosted the showcase.

Grill said that the businesses taking part in the accelerator play a particular role in reducing the toll COVID-19 takes on either people, the places they inhabit or the planet at large. Ryan Pletka, vice president of the accelerator, discussed the importance of showcasing a wide variety of businesses.

“COVID really highlighted the need for us to expand our view and really to identify how connected we all are,” Pletka said. “So without solutions that really address all three of the people, the places where we operate as well as the planet at large, we feel that you only have a limited perspective.”

Reducing risk for people

Some Missouri businesses are working toward during the pandemic to aid individuals navigating the coronavirus.

Kansas City-based EB Systems uses its Beacon Reader, which can track devices and bluetooth wearables, to provide location-based statistics.

This technology was largely used to monitor events, such as the Kansas City Super Bowl parade, prior to the pandemic, but EB Systems has shifted its focus since.

“We added two COVID-19 features, first being social distancing monitoring, from each room or zone we can set a safe social distance population,” EB Systems co-founder Jon Ruiz said during the showcase. “If that threshold is crossed, we can send an alert in real time to the proper personnel. Also, over time we can run analytics on how well a work site is maintaining social distancing.”

EB Systems can also provide detailed reports of where an infected COVID-19 patient has been or who they have interacted with through its contact tracing feature. The system is able to send an alert to anyone who the infected person came in contact with.

Kansas City-based Cykyl Springs, a company focused on finding force and pressure breakthroughs with springs, like those used in vehicles, is another business working to provide solutions at an individual level.

The business saw how endotracheal tubes, which are used to ensure a pathway for oxygen during surgery or when a patient is in critical condition, often caused issues, especially during the pandemic.

“To get the ventilation to work, you have to put an effective stopper in place to keep the air inside the lungs, and that’s called an inflated cuff, ” said CEO Dan Klotzer. “There’s a problem, though: There’s no way to get the pressure correct, and none of the pressures are really very effective.”

Klotzer said that if the cuff pressure is too high or too low, it could lead to pneumonia or tissue damage. He says this is especially an issue during the coronavirus.

“An especially big problem during the COVID crisis is that the pressure management process alone is rather time consuming,” he said. “Now, all the respiratory therapists want to stay out of the room when you have a room of infected patients.”

Cykyl Springs developed the cuff collector, which is a tool that Klotzer says always gives the correct air pressure hands free. He says that this tool will reduce inflated cuff pressure issues in patients, and will reduce caregivers’ exposure to COVID-19.

Keeping spaces safe

Another focus of the Black & Veatch accelerator is to support businesses working to make schools, places of work and other shared spaces safe during the pandemic.

One of these companies is Windgo, a Columbia-based startup focused on the use of “smart” sensors in windows and light projection. The company has a patent on projection of ultraviolet and white light.

David Stumpf, the company’s vice president of research and development, said that ultraviolet (UV) light can be used to kill viruses and bacteria that live in the air and on most surfaces. However, exposure to UV light can be harmful to people and animals.

“The problem, however, and opportunity in this case, is that human safety is a must,” Strumpf said.

According to Strumpf, Windgo is working on a safe way to implement this technology during the pandemic.

“One of the things we have planned next through the program is to bring these into actual facilities … so we can provide drop-in solutions and integrate into existing network solutions,” he said.

Another method being used to eliminate bacteria, viruses and other harmful microorganisms is airilization. This process uses air and electricity to create reactive gases that help disinfect various facilities, according to Strumpf.

Nanoguard, based out of St. Louis, uses airilization to disinfect illness-causing agents in food, medical environments and more.

“For COVID-19 we’re focused on areas for spatial decontamination such as hospitals, classrooms and schools, corporate environments, retail … we look for Black & Veatch to help us install these likely using existing HVAC duct work to supply these reactive gasses to the spaces we want to decontaminate,” CEO Larry Clark said.

Flattening the curve across the planet

While some Missouri businesses are working to keep people and places safe throughout the pandemic, others are focusing on stopping the spread of COVID-19 and other viruses across the planet.

Drexel-based InnovaPrep makes microbiology tools for rapid sample collection and concentration. CEO Dave Alburty said this technology can efficiently detect the coronavirus.

“InnovaPrep makes these tools here in Drexel for air collection, surface collection and most amazingly liquid-to-liquid sample concentration, because those rapid methods only use a fraction of a drop of sample — that’s how they can do things so fast and so cheap,” Alburty said.

Alburty said that quicker detection helps to reduce the spread of COVID-19 cases.

“To flatten the curve faster, we just need to detect quicker,” he said. “So the bottom line really is that we make these tools — they enable rapid detection across the board in a lot of different ways.”

Technologies like those showcased by the Black & Veatch accelerator could be a key component of helping the world navigate the pandemic, Alburty said.

“While human terrorists are really bad, nature is the worst bioterrorist, and she’s not going anywhere soon,” he said. “We’ve been at war with biological pathogens for millenia, whether or not we’ve known that. But now we’ve got the secret weapon. We have science and technology solutions that can help us identify these things rapidly so we know what to do about it.”

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