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Inventive Long Islanders work to outsmart the novel coronavirus

Inventors and entrepreneurs put their resources to work coming up with innovative medical, safety and social solutions to brand-new problems. Long Island companies such as 71 Visuals, turned their production facility into a mass production face shield factory. Credit: 71 Visuals

Long Island companies are shredding their spreadsheets and recharting their course to wage war on COVID-19.
Graphic designers are producing face shields; makers of lingerie and souped-up cars are crafting masks; medical device makers are pursuing treatments; audiovisual experts are connecting the sick and elderly to their families.
The burst of Long Island ingenuity comes in the face of a pandemic-driven slowdown in the global economy.

"Entrepreneurs' DNA is to find problems that need to be solved," said Marc Alessi,  executive director of the Business Incubator Association of New York State. "This situation is actually a fit for their lives."

Those innovators ultimately should get a fair share of credit for ending the pandemic,  said Alon Kapen, a securities lawyer at Uniondale-based Farrell Fritz.

"All the attention is on the government response," he said "But the real cure to the virus will be from the private sector.  All these companies in the private sector are making tremendous contributions to getting us out of this predicament."

Here are a few stories from the front:

CALL TO ACTION

On Friday, March 20, Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued a sweeping stay-at-home order closing "nonessential" businesses as of the following Sunday night.

That directive shook Craig Geiger, chief executive of 71 Visuals, a Hauppauge graphics and signage firm.

"How do I keep my business alive?" he thought.

But tucked into Cuomo's address was a lifeline, calling on businesses to join the battle.

"Cuomo asked in the news conference for people to be creative, to come up with solutions," particularly for supplying personal protective equipment desperately needed by health care workers.

In short, a "nonessential" business like a graphics design firm could transform — voila! — into an "essential" equipment supplier.

"On Saturday, we assembled a small team to come into the shop," Geiger said. "We were talking about what we could do."

They settled on the face shields worn over surgical and N95 masks by first responders and health care workers based on the company's experience and its equipment, such as routers and laser cutters.

"We got a shield and started reverse engineering and prototyping it that Saturday," he said. "On Monday we were ordering materials and we were making shields."

Geiger built an assembly line, tweaking the process to shave a few seconds here and a few seconds there.

Now the 25-person operation is running seven days a week and producing as many as 5,000 shields a day.

The shields cost about $3.75 apiece, and one order came from the Centers for Disease Control for 50,000, Geiger said.

Geiger recalled one memorable delivery of the shields to a surgeon's home in Cold Spring Harbor.

"When he saw me, he said, 'You're saving my life.' "

Among the other Long Island companies making face shields is Farmingdale-based D'Addario & Company Inc., a global supplier of musical instrument accessories.

D'Addario devised a plan to use the clear film on its Evans G2 drumheads and ramp up to producing 100,000 face shields a week by April 27. The name of the enterprise: Project Excelsior, after the New York State motto.

RETHINKING A DRUG

CMTx Biotech Inc. was developing a drug for a rare neurological disorder called Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease when COVID-19 struck.

Joseph Scaduto, chief executive of the Kings Park startup, said the emergence of the new coronavirus brought to mind some earlier trials of the drug candidate when it had been effective in treating acute respiratory distress syndrome in preclinical animal models.

Acute respiratory distress syndrome can lead to pneumonia and death in some COVID-19 patients.

The company's drug candidate already has been tested for safety in humans, accelerating the process, said James Keane, co-founder and chief operating officer.

Scaduto and Keane began writing an FDA proposal to stage a clinical trial for the drug and are seeking to raise about $2.5 million to fund it. 

The trial's goal: Halt the progression of COVID-19 and reduce patients' time on ventilators or eliminate the need entirely.

Scaduto said two SUNY hospitals have agreed to stage the trials, which, if approved, could take place as early as this fall.

"Everyone knows this is a defining moment in their lives," Scaduto said.

THE NEED FOR SPEED

Matthew Mendez typically spends his work hours  tweaking more horsepower out of customized cars and motorcycles as owner of Brentwood speed shop Long Island Racing LLC.

These days, burning rubber  is out and filtration is in.

Mendez has adapted a 3D printer to produce about 100  reusable face masks a day.

The masks are printed to shape and fitted with a gasket and a HEPA filter.

"We have to make these masks as reusable and as simple as possible," Mendez said. "The simpler the design, the more idiot-proof it is."

Mendez said that he's donating masks to Winthrop Hospital and seeking to distribute to first responders.

Though the masks do not have N95 certification (meaning they block 95% of 0.3-micron test particles), Mendez said, his versions have a filter range "all the way to an N100," depending on the material used.

"As things become more desperate, the bars get lower," he said of institutions that insist on certified N95 masks, which are in short supply. "They're going to realize no PPE is worse than some PPE."

To fund the effort, Mendez is seeking donations through GoFundMe.com. As of Friday afternoon, Long Island Racing's page had raised $6,480 of its $50,000 goal. 

TARGETING RESPIRATORY FAILURE

In March, Beyond Air Inc., a Garden City medical device maker, took two big steps to target COVID-19.

The publicly traded company applied for an investigational device exemption to the Food and Drug Administration and drew $5 million of its $25 million credit line.

The exemption would let the maker of devices that deliver nitric oxide to the lungs shift a planned winter study of babies suffering from acute respiratory failure to COVID-19 patients who are struggling to breath, but are not yet on a ventilator.

The funding would let the company accelerate the process.

"When this happened, we changed everything," Steven Lisi, chairman and chief executive, said of the coronavirus pandemic.

Inhaled nitric oxide (not nitrous oxide, the laughing gas administered by some dentists) is used to treat lung infections by dilating air sacs in the lungs and allowing a freer exchange of oxygen.

At higher doses, nitric oxide also kills bacteria and viruses, Lisi said.

The colorless gas already is used to treat pulmonary patients in hospitals, but Beyond Air's yet-to-be-approved device pulls nitric oxide from ambient air, eliminating the need for tanks.

Tests of the gas already have begun elsewhere. 

At the end of March, Massachusetts General Hospital announced that it would be the first New England hospital to test nitric oxide on COVID-19 patients.

The hospital said it is part of an international study of nitric oxide to test its effectiveness in enhancing breathing and killing the coronavirus.

Lisi said for some, the treatment could mean survival. "If we get people early enough, we can save them."

AIMING TO TRIM VENTILATOR TIME 

Mechanical ventilators arguably are the most sought-after pieces of equipment during the COVID-19 pandemic because the virus robs victims of breath.

A COVID-19 patient who is put on a ventilator spends on average about 14 days on the device, about half of that time being weaned off it, said Linda Towler, chief executive of Avery Biomedical Devices Inc. in Commack.

While on the ventilator, the patient's diaphragm atrophies, she said.

Some never come off it.

"They're dying because they can't get off the ventilator," she said.

That's where Avery Biomedical comes in. The company's diaphragm pacing system, which stimulates the phrenic nerve to cause breathing contractions, can be an alternative to ventilators for some patients, Towler said.

For patients who must be placed on ventilators, a version of the pacing system could maintain diaphragm function, cutting the time spent weaning patients off ventilators by four or five days, Towler said.

She said the company is putting together an emergency use authorization request for the FDA and is in talks with the biomedical team at Stony Brook University.

FROM LINGERIE TO FACE MASKS

Sisters Kali and Noelle Ventresca usually can be found with their dogs in their Sea Cliff workshop, turning out customizable lingerie for their online business, Impish Lee.

Even in the coronavirus age of sheltering in place and social distancing, orders are still coming in, Kali Ventresca said.

But these days they're spending much of their time as part of an ad hoc sewing cooperative organized by Phil Rugile, director of coworking space LaunchPad Huntington.

The sewing crew is turning out three-ply surgical face masks for health care workers.

"This is a group of entrepreneurs solving a problem," Rugile said.

Production in a recent week was about 200, but Rugile said with a few more seamstresses, they could be producing 200 a day.

In Port Washington, Nancy Sinoway, owner of a tailoring and dressmaking shop, saw business come to a halt when communions, bar and bat mitzvahs and other events were canceled because of the outbreak.

To adapt, she, too, decided to join the legions of small businesses and volunteer sewing groups on Long Island making masks.  She sells the washable denim masks to the public.

Times are tough, but Sinoway said she's not going anywhere.

"I'm a survivor," she said. "We have to wait till the world reopens, but I'll be here."

REACH OUT, BUT DON'T TOUCH SOMEONE

in the 1980s, when telephones had cords, carrier AT&T's tagline was "Reach out and touch someone."

Jump ahead to 2020s coronavirus era and we're advised not to approach someone, much less touch them.

IVCi LLC, a Hauppauge-based video conferencing company, has been working with clients in the corporate, higher education and federal government markets.

Daniel Abrams, IVCi's vice president of business development, said the need to isolate patients hospitalized with the virus and the vulnerable elderly in assisted living and nursing homes has created a problem.

"Imagine you've got a sick COVID-19 patient who wants to communicate with a loved one," he said.

Institutions face questions of which devices to use, how to sanitize them and how to help users navigate the electronics, which may be unfamiliar, Abrams said.

Abrams said that at the end of March, the company began working on the problem in response to queries from health care clients.

"We're working to take this from initial concept to broad-based rollout in under 30 days," he said.

One feature of the proposed system calls for a live call-center attendant to operate as a bridge, helping to ensure the patient and the caller connect and reducing demands on health care workers. 

The system could use an institution's available hardware, such as tablet computers, or incorporate new devices.

In the most extreme cases, that video conference can carry words of solace or even a final memory.

"How do we let them say goodbye to their loved ones?" he said.

Other Long Island companies working to defeat COVID-19

Vengo Labs of Bethpage usually makes smart vending machines and is now making face shields.

Trop Trenz of Ronkonkoma, maker of fashion accessories, is making filtration masks.

Graphic Image of Melville, leather goods maker, is making filtration masks.

Core SWX of Plainview, maker of battery chargers, is making face shields.

Laura Alison Design of Huntington, a clothing maker, is making face masks.

Corinthian Cast Stone building products of Wyandanch is now making intubation shield.

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