Even as Americans are getting vaccinated, Covid-19 isn’t going anywhere. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) like high quality face masks remain scarce, which makes the ability to reuse them safely paramount.
Enter Morgan Hill medical device companies Calumeo and Phoenix DeVentures, which have collaborated to bring Calumeo Clean—device that safely cleans and processes N95 masks for reuse—to FDA approval in just seven months. The quick turnaround time—it usually takes anywhere from three to seven years to bring a medical device market—speaks to the ingenuity, hard work and talents of Calumeo and Phoenix DeVentures.
Calumeo CEO Niki Panich and Phoenix DeVentures CEO Jeff Christian started talking last spring, and they both knew immediately the collaboration was going to be a cohesive one.
“Our personalities hit it off from the very beginning,” said Christian, a longtime Morgan Hill resident who launched Phoenix DeVentures out of his garage 20 years ago.
Shaped like a microwave, Calumeo Clean is a compact device that fits on a countertop and uses dry heat—not toxic chemicals—to safely and effectively process N95 masks for reuse. Manufactured by Phoenix Deventures, the device can process up to six masks at a time—each mask can be processed this way up to five times, according to Calumeo—and takes a little over an hour to complete.
Currently, many healthcare organizations ship their masks to an outside facility to be disinfected with vaporized hydrogen peroxide, and then returned. But medical workers don’t necessarily get their own masks back, which can weaken the efficacy since they need to be fitted to an individual’s face.
Along with KN95 masks, a N95 mask is considered the gold standard of protection from the virus because of its tight fit and 95 percent efficiency in filtering airborne particles. However, N95 masks are only designed to be worn one time, which has resulted in hundreds of millions of face masks being thrown away worldwide since the pandemic started.
That means thousands of tons of extra waste going to landfill, creating a huge waste management problem and harm to the environment. In the U.S. alone, hospitals produce an estimated 6 million tons of waste annually, a figure that has risen due to Covid-19.
“We started Calumeo with the thought of helping with the mask shortage,” said Panich, a family physician who has a Master’s in data science and another from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. “But in the process we actually uncovered a bigger problem—the amount of waste from single-use PPE devices. When the world reflects on the pandemic, we’ll be shocked on how much waste we put into the ground and ocean. So having a way to safely reuse PPE is a new thing, but it feels like the right decision for our grandchildren, their grandchildren and beyond.”
The founders of Calumeo—a team of physicians, engineers and business school students—met during a Stanford University Biodesign Innovation course at the beginning of the pandemic. They quickly identified problems in PPE and focused on the need to reuse N95 respirators during a Johns Hopkins University (Maryland) Covid challenge, which they won. Things eventually pivoted to developing a device that would safely clean masks for reuse, with Calumeo Clean getting to market in a remarkably quick time.
“There is no way Calumeo Clean would be on the market if we didn’t have this partnership with Jeff,” Panich said. “Six Stanford students couldn’t bring this product to market.”
Christian, who had already done several projects with Stanford Fellows and graduates from the Stanford Biodesign program, knew this was a great opportunity for both parties to see the startup project to completion.
“One thing we find very consistent is the Fellows and graduates coming out of Stanford are smart and very well educated, but they frankly have no experience (launching a startup),” Christian said. “It’s one thing to be trained in an academic environment; it’s another thing to suffer all the blows startups are going to hit. It’s kind of like running a gauntlet. We help startups get going and avoid the pitfalls.”