Two UVA professors developed an innovative new air-filtration venture. Then the pandemic hit.

In the latest installment of Batten’s expert chat series, Batten professor Bala Mulloth and Gaurav Giri, a professor in the department of chemical engineering, discussed how they’re pivoting their business venture to address the crisis.

Face masks have been in short supply all over the country since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. During this week’s expert chat, Batten professor Bala Mulloth and UVA professor in the department of chemical engineering Gaurav Giri shared a possible solution.

In 2018, Giri and Mulloth founded a materials science-based air-filtration company, Hava, Inc. The goal for the venture was clear, the professors said: produce masks and other filtration products to protect people in developing countries from dangerous levels of air pollution.

The impetus for the company was an innovative new technology and application areas that Mulloth and Giri are continuing to develop. In a process similar to textile dyeing, the pair has found, different fabrics can be dipped into a class of compounds called metal-organic frameworks (MOF) to make MOF-fabrics, which permits the passage of substances like oxygen and water while also blocking a large number of particles. 

Although the process is fast, cheap, and effective, the professors have been focused on making it “perfect,” Mulloth said. As of last month, they’d managed to produce fabrics that achieve N90 filtration; in other words, the materials can filter out 90% of particles—just 5% short of the filtration rate achieved with N95 masks. 

Then the pandemic hit. “As a company, at first our goal was to get N95 performance so that we could say, ‘Our material is as good as the best out there, and it can be made very cheaply and on fabric,’” said Giri. “But with COVID-19, we have decided to pivot.”

Given the absence of adequate medical-grade masks, the CDC currently recommends cloth face coverings, which have a far lower filtration rate than the MOF-fabrics. This shows the serious need for Hava’s technology, Giri said. To start producing masks as quickly as possible, Giri and Mulloth aim to collaborate with a textile manufacturer, either using the corporation’s equipment or purchasing some of it for themselves. Considering the dire need for effective personal protection equipment, Mulloth said the company is willing to “give away the secret sauce” to a larger corporation through a partnership or sublicensing agreement in order to make the Hava technology widely available. 

“We don’t want to hold onto this technological breakthrough,” he said. “We want society to benefit from it as soon as possible.”

Few other companies have capitalized on metal-organic frameworks because of how long it has taken to produce, but Giri and his research team have succeeded in shrinking the chemical reaction down from hours or even days to mere seconds. Hava materials, which can be made from cotton or bamboo fabrics, are also very inexpensive to make. The professors stressed that the company has a lot of potential. “This is a very disruptive technology,” Mulloth said. “From an innovation perspective, big companies should pay attention to these new, below-the-radar technologies, which could really scale up fast.”

Although they’re determined to meet the needs raised by the COVID-19 crisis, Mulloth and Giri are also taking the longer view. “The core advantage of this technology is that because we’re fabric-based, we're not bound to making another clunky, stiff mask,” Mulloth said, citing scarfs, hijabs, and even baby stroller covers as other possible applications. “The mask industry is actually already quite saturated—but not the fashion apparel industry.”

For now, however, Hava is focused on masks. Mulloth and Giri told their audience that they’re currently shipping samples out to mass manufacturers in an attempt to find a viable partner. They’re looking to raise $350,000 to help with that process or to fund the cost of production equipment if they need to purchase it for themselves. Mulloth encouraged viewers interested in donating and those with leads or industry connections to get in touch with the professors by email: mulloth@virginia.edu and gg3qd@virginia.edu