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Companies at UMBC’s research park pivot to develop new ways to combat coronavirus

Benjamin Broedel, Production Manager at Athena Enzyme Systems works at the hand sanitizer production station, made of a a mixing station, pump, and bottling station. Companies at bwtech@UMBC Research & Technology Park are changing what they manufacture during the pandemic. Athena Enzyme Systems has started making hand sanitizer for first responders and nonprofits.
Benjamin Broedel, Production Manager at Athena Enzyme Systems works at the hand sanitizer production station, made of a a mixing station, pump, and bottling station. Companies at bwtech@UMBC Research & Technology Park are changing what they manufacture during the pandemic. Athena Enzyme Systems has started making hand sanitizer for first responders and nonprofits. (Jeffrey F. Bill/Baltimore Sun Media Group)

While the coronavirus pandemic has upended the nation’s economy and subsequently shuttered some large-scale manufacturers, companies at bwtech@UMBC Research and Technology Park have switched gears to stay in business and help health care professionals prevent and more easily treat coronavirus.

Here’s what they’re doing:

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AthenaES

As a manufacturer of instruments for biotechnical researchers, Athena Enzyme Systems pivoted to making hand sanitizer after founder Sheldon Bloedel’s son-in-law, a New York City police officer who transferred to the police department’s COVID-19 task force, called Bloedel in March to tell him he was not being provided hand sanitizer or personal protective equipment.

Bloedel, who runs the 26-year-old company with his son Benjamin Bloedel, said the pair began researching hand sanitizer approved by the Federal Food and Drug Administration and World Health Organization for use by health care professionals, and was able to supply small amounts to his son-in-law.

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Soon after, Benjamin Bloedel began hearing from local agencies like the Baltimore City Police Department and Baltimore City Public Works looking for sanitizer at a time when the supply chain was squeezed, his father said.

“Everything we needed [to make it] was in the lab, we just didn’t have a lot of it,” Benjamin Bloedel said.

To that end, AthenaES launched a GoFundMe page that raised $3,000 to purchase the materials needed to make the hand sanitizer following FDA and WHO guidelines and to deliver the 16-ounce refillable bottles initially to first responders before widening the scope to homeless shelters and community outreach groups in the greater Baltimore area.

Benjamin said many of the groups the sanitizer has been donated to have reached out through the Facebook group PPE Baltimore after he posted about it.

“Agents are reaching out to me every day with different [groups] that need it, volunteers are picking it up and delivering it from our facility to these organizations,” Benjamin said. “It’s a very organic, grassroots kind of effort,” with many people furloughed or working from home serving as “these sort of de facto organizers for the supply chain.”

AthenaES is also supplying hand sanitizer at cost to commercial operations like Southwest Airlines and the United Parcel Service. Despite revenue being down by 80%, Benjamin said the company wants to donate the sanitizer for as long as it can to nonprofits and front-line workers.

4S Silversword

Started in a garage in 2016, the technology company that often contracts with the U.S. Department of Defense to develop new software and communications systems is now developing a sanitizer box for the single-use N95 masks worn by coronavirus response teams amid nationwide reports of mask shortages.

Company founder Elias Senter, whose sister is a Johns Hopkins Medical Center nurse, said the endeavor is “near and dear to my heart.”

The box is meant to rapidly decontaminate N95 masks with ultraviolet light in about two minutes, for possibly up to 20 times before the mask begins to degrade. An attached radio-frequency identification chip would be able to indicate when the mask is no longer able to be used.

Ultraviolet is already used to disinfect hospital surfaces and to treat water supplies.

Although not approved by the FDA as a sanitizing method for single-use masks, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in April said that ultraviolet germicidal irradiation is among the cleaning techniques that show “the most promise as potential methods to decontaminate” single-use masks.

Senter said the company is doing its “due diligence” to try to get certified by the FDA. In normal times, that could take at least 18 months, Senter said, but the FDA has issued emergency-use authorizations for organizations developing ways to sterilize personal protective equipment for reuse.

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So far, the FDA has granted emergency-use authorizations to 18 companies, according to its website.

“You could have it in every hospital break room — at least on every floor,” Senter said.

4S Silversword is also developing infrared, temperature-sensing cameras to screen those who may have fevers due to coronavirus “and get them into care faster,” Senter said.

The device is potentially useful for field hospitals. However, “it’s actually a lot harder than it sounds,” Senter said.

“We’re only talking about a couple of degrees’ difference between a healthy person and a sick person — and from a distance that’s very hard” to discern, he said.

In a May report, the American Civil Liberties Union warned against the use of such devices, writing that there are limits to their usefulness in detecting COVID-19 due to questionable accuracy and privacy infringement.

Potomac Photonics

In more typical times, the micro-manufacturing company Potomac Photonics would be using technologies like lasers and 3D printers to make products smaller than a speck of dust for biotechnical and medical use at NASA, universities, naval research labs and large electronics companies. Those products would be used in a variety of ways, like removing precancerous cells linked to cervical cancer.

“We knew from the beginning [of the pandemic] that there were things we could to do contribute,” said Mike Adelstein, the company’s president and CEO.

A partnering company in New York told Adelstein, a graduate of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, that there was a need for protective visors, or face shields, at Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx.

Usually worn with masks, face shields cover the face while protecting the eyes, mouth and nose. When used with the mask, the shield provides the level of protection recommended by the CDC to guard against the virus.

With 3D printers, the company can make between 100 and 200 masks per day, Adelstein said. They’ve shipped the masks to Sinai Hospital, Johns Hopkins and Mercy Medical Center, and as far away as Florida and Massachusetts.

"The need is continuing to grow,” Adelstein said.

Potomac Photonics is also creating micro-fluidic devices, colloquially called a lab-on-a-chip, no bigger than the size of credit card, designed to perform rapid diagnostics testing devices or research using fluid.

The devices can be used to analyze concussions and detect cancer early, and possibly to more rapidly test for coronavirus.

The device could mean “faster, earlier detection [of coronavirus] if someone has it,” Adelstein said.

Testing results now can be determined in a matter of hours, “but in some of these cases, you could think about it going down to minutes,” he said.

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Adelstein has sent the lab-on-a-chip to a research team at New York University, and is considering applying for grant funding from the National Evaluation System for Health Technology.

“A lot of this is just driven by people who are looking for anyone to provide a solution at this point,” Adelstein said. “There’s a huge demand out there.”

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