Membrion, the Seattle startup that spun out of the University of Washington four years ago, is working on new technology that could make face masks even more protective in the fight against COVID-19.

Founder and CEO Greg Newbloom is a chemical engineering expert who has been working for years on filtering technology for use in fuel cells and water desalination systems. His solution, for cleaner water and energy, was found by turning silica gel — like those tiny packets at the bottom of a beef jerky pack — into a membrane, or a selective barrier.

Now he’s converting the idea to spray form.

“Basically, we use the same environmentally friendly and food-safe materials we use to make our membranes but we make them much less concentrated. This allows them to be sprayed out of a bottle and onto a mask,” Newbloom told GeekWire. The Seattle Times first reported on Membrion’s work on Monday.

“Ten sprays of our coating on a typical cotton mask can adsorb a quadrillion coronavirus particles (which is 1,000x more stars than our galaxy),” Newbloom added. “The idea is to bring the science of what makes N95 masks so effective to a regular cotton mask.”

Pieces of cotton coated and not coated with Membrion’s product react differently to red dye which has been sprayed on the material. The dye fades on the coated material, left, because the positively charged coating neutralizes the negatively charged dye. The coating is expected to work similarly by neutralizing negatively charged coronavirus particles. (Membrion Photo)

Newbloom got the idea at the beginning of the pandemic when his mother, a retired nurse, asked if Membrion’s membranes could be used in masks. He immediately shot her down, explaining that the membranes are too dense to be used in a mask.

But he didn’t stop thinking about how his company’s ion exchange membranes are commonly used to remove viruses from water sources in biotech purifications.

“I thought, maybe if we could make a coating instead of a dense membrane we could do something similar to a face mask,” he said.

The spray coating captures COVID-19 molecules on the surface of the mask, preventing them from being inhaled into the lungs or exhaled into the environment, Membrion said in a news release. Viruses like COVID-19 typically carry a surface charge. Membrion’s molecular coating creates a countercharge that attracts and binds COVID-19 virus molecules. In the same way that magnets with different polarities stick together, the charged virus molecules stick to the opposite charge in the coating on the mask.

Membrion did some proof-of-concept development of the mask spray and ended up receiving a $256,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. They’re now running at full speed on a product that has been in the works for about five months.

Membrion has a team of 15 employees working out of its production facility in Seattle’s Interbay neighborhood. Its membranes are being delivered to customers now for use in pilot studies, including a handful of Fortune 500 companies, according to Newbloom. The startup has raised $7.5 million to date, including $6 million in new funding in March. Along with the new NSF grant, Membrion has been awarded $3 million in research funding.

Membrion founder and CEO Greg Newbloom. (GeekWire Photo / Dan DeLong)

Membrion was a finalist in GeekWire’s 2019 “Elevator Pitch” series and Newbloom has been featured as a Geek of the Week as well. He was a finalist for EY’s Entrepreneur of the Year 2020 Pacific Northwest Award.

Newbloom was a lecturer at UW for nearly four years, ending in the summer of 2018. He also co-founded another Seattle-area startup: PolyDrop, which turns regular coatings like paint into conductive substances.

Membrion plans to roll-out the spray product to businesses with high-transmission-risk workers (grocery stores, restaurants, warehouse workers, etc.) by the end of November and hopes to be distributing to the general public by the end of 2020.

“We’re looking for partners that can help us bring our mask coating product to market faster,” Newbloom said.

Pricing has not been finalized, but Membrion expects it to cost approximately $1 per dose (which lasts up to 24 hours).

We’ll have to wait and see whether Membrion’s mask coating ends up being a pandemic game changer. Others are certainly think about solutions in the space. Researchers in India have developed an anti-microbial spray to potentially kill microbes on the outside of a mask; in Toronto, researchers are working with tiny particles of copper on the inside of fabrics as an extra layer of protection. Just don’t buy into spraying oil on your mask to act as a virus catcher.

Asked whether the mask spray — which hasn’t been named — could be a big business for Membrion, Newbloom said it depends on how long we’re all wearing masks, citing a recent claim by infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci, who said he expects social distancing and mask wearing to be common into 2022.

“If that’s the case, there’s an immediate and large business opportunity,” Newbloom said. “Beyond this pandemic, mask wearing has been common in Asia for quite some time and so we see significant market opportunities over there as well. We’re anticipating that we’ll continue hiring people as we’re scaling production of the mask spray product.”

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