How the COVID crisis sparked innovations in Texas and beyond that will outlast the pandemic

From germ-killing robots to "smart toilets" to new medications, the coronavirus is opening up doors for entrepreneurs and innovators.

John C. Moritz
Corpus Christi Caller Times

AUSTIN — Just around quitting time at the Texas Capitol after most of the elected leaders and their staffs had left for the day during the most recent special session of the Legislature, a creature that goes by the name Violet waited outside a lawmaker's office.

"It's a germ-killing robot," a Capitol maintenance worker told a head-scratching individual who paused for a closer look at the R2D2-like contraption.

The Xenex LightStrike robot inside the Texas Capitol.

The robot, formally called the Xenon LightStrike, had been in use in hospitals across the nation for about a decade to kill infection-causing pathogens in operating rooms and intensive-care units. It uses pulsating high-powered xenon ultraviolet light to break down and kill viruses and bacteria.

Morris Miller, chief executive officer of Xenex Germ-Zapping Solutions, said hospitals initially purchased the robots to reduce the likelihood of patients developing secondary infections from microscopic pathogens on surgical equipment, surfaces and in the air.

But as the sometimes deadly virus that causes COVID-19 began its global march more than 18 months ago,  the San Antonio-based manufacture upgraded it and expanded its use in the desperate fight to quash the pandemic. 

A dozen of them are in use inside the Capitol, and hundreds of others are deployed in government buildings, businesses and other indoor public spaces worldwide. And it's one of numerous examples of innovations, both in technology and medical science, that have sprouted as engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs joined the seemingly unending fight against COVID-19.

Miller said the state purchased the robots, each of which is given a unique name, at a cost of $125,000 per unit after peer-reviewed studies showed they are 99.99% effective in killing SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, in a matter of minutes. Since the pandemic, the Xenex factory has been producing as many as 20 robots a day to keep pace with demand.

"We're building around the clock," he said.

Catalysts for innovation

Dirk Schroeder, an associate professor of social entrepreneurship and global health at Emory University in Atlanta, said societal upheaval like pandemics and other emergencies often acts as a catalyst for innovation that continues to sow benefits even after the emergency has passed.

"There are people in the healthcare-innovation space saying things like 'we've condensed three years of innovation into three months,'" said Schroeder, who last year published a guide in the Harvard Business Review for entrepreneurs seeking to bring COVID-inspired products and services into the marketplace.

More:What we know about the mu variant and why Fauci is 'keeping a very close eye on it'

Central to his advice was for innovators to develop business models that can thrive in a post-pandemic economy. In the year since the article was published, Schroeder said he's modified his outlook at least somewhat.

"I said we really shouldn't call it the finish line," he said, referring to the end of the pandemic. "We should call it the new normal."

Xenex CEO Morris Miller demonstrates the company's pathogen-killing LightStrike robot.

Xenex's robots, which have onboard computers that track where they are deployed, for how long and when they'll need maintenance, sit stationary in whatever indoor space they are disinfecting. Their domed tops rise up to reveal the tubular bulb that pulsates the ultraviolet light. Rooms must be cleared of people and plants while the robots do their job. Unlike chemical disinfectants, the robots clean without any residue, Miller said.

Once done, the robot turns itself off and lowers its dome.

"You can occupy the space right away," he said. "It doesn't damage furniture, or fixtures or wall coverings or vinyl. And the old way of making UV light turning everything yellow, we don't."

Killing germs and killing odors

The ultraviolet light also clears the space of any lingering odors, which surprised the NFL's Carolina Panthers after they purchased a unit to help keep certain areas in its stadium as COVID-free as possible, Miller said. After the robot was used in the team's locker room, he said the pungent smell of sweat-drenched jerseys and athletic socks familiar to anyone who has ever dressed for a high school gym class had evaporated.

Amarillo-based Asiet Air Purifiers has been manufacturing equipment that uses a technology called photocatalytic oxidation for about 20 years. Its products, which employ ultraviolet light along with a scrubber filtration system, have been used in hospitals, businesses and animal facilities like shelters and kennels to kill viruses and other pathogens.

The firm recently began marketing it as a tool in the fight against COVID, said company executive Buck Buckley.

More:What we know about the mu variant and why Fauci is 'keeping a very close eye on it'

"We're in universities, we're in schools, we're in state organizations," he said. "We're in state schools, mental hospitals. We're in surgical operating rooms.

Unlike the Xenex robot, his company's purifiers are safe to use around people and pets, Buckley said. But like the robot, Asiet's equipment also kills aroma, so much so that a restaurant asked that its unit be removed.

"People couldn't smell the food, and the smell of the food is what sells," Buckley said. "So it was one of the few places we've had to actually take our equipment out."

Innovation and the CARES Act

In a posting on his LinkedIn page, Asiet's founder and president Tim Miller includes in a sales pitch for his company's product notice that federal COVID-relief funding can be used to purchase his air-purification system.

Last year, the Slidell Independent School District in North Texas used money from the federal CARES Act to make one of the first purchases of an air filtration system specifically invented in response to COVID. Once the system was installed, the district did not have to close its campus during the 2020-21 school year, said Superintendent Taylor Williams.

An anti-COVID air-filtration system in a classroom in North Texas' Slidell school district.

In the time the product line, manufactured by Houston's Integrated Viral Protection, hit the market more than 5,000 units have been sold worldwide and are in some 150 schools and 300 hospitals, said IVP's Garrett Peel. In addition, the state of Texas has purchased 25 units, including one in use at the Texas Department of Emergency Management's operation center in Austin, Peel said.

More:Ex-Gov. Rick Perry is part of company marketing 'catch and kill' device to battle COVID

Last month, former Gov. Rick Perry, a part owner of the company, held a news conference in Austin to encourage the state and other entities to purchase additional units as the fight against COVID continues. Peel said the state has not made any more purchases since Perry made his pitch.

'Smart toilets' and virtual ICUs

At Houston's Harris Methodist Hospital, doctors and other experts have made long strides in expanding what they call virtual intensive care units. Since the pandemic's outbreak, the hospital system has added more monitors and cameras and other highly sophisticated equipment in ICU rooms that allow for increased remote monitoring, which means medical teams can keep track of more patients, and it leads to more rapid response to patients in crisis, said Dr. Faisal Masud, a critical-care specialist at Houston Methodist.

"What happens is that if something has changed inside these patients' rooms or (with) a patient's vital signs, they're picked up immediately by the nurse, and they can engage," Masud said. "The camera sensitivity is so high that they can check the (eye's) pupil size."

The technology is not specific to COVID, he added, meaning it is already being integrated through the hospital and will remain in use indefinitely.

More:As delta variant surges, Abbott sticks to keeping vaccines, masks voluntary

Schroeder, the social entrepreneurship professor at Emory University, said similar COVID-inspired medical advances abound worldwide. He pointed to a "smart toilet" developed by researchers at Stanford University in California that is equipped with disease-detecting technology that can examine urine and stool samples without a medical attendant directly interacting with a patient whose condition might be contagious. 

"The toilet automatically sends data extracted from any sample to a secure, cloud-based system for safekeeping," according to Stanford Medicine's news center.

"I think this is a huge area that is going to stick after the pandemic recedes," Schroeder said. "Technologies like 'smart toilets,' which can passively diagnose health conditions on a daily basis, are the next wave."

Motivated 'to help people'

In Texas, a research team led by Texas A&M chemistry professor Wenshe Ray Liu has developed a drug compound called MPI8 that was shown in lab tests to stop the replication of the virus. That led the San Diego pharmaceutical company Sorrento Therapeutics to pursue exclusive intellectual property rights to the compound, saying that not only could it be essential in the fight against COVID-19, but also help treat other diseases, perhaps even some not yet discovered, the university said.

Texas A&M chemistry professor Wenshe Ray Liu

Liu, a 2018 Texas A&M Presidential Impact Fellow, also was among the co-authors of the first paper to identify the drug remdesivir as a COVID fighter. The drug, which was developed more than a decade ago to treat hepatitis C and non-COVID-related respiratory virus, has been found to help shorten the recovery time for some COVID-19 patients, but according to the National Institute of Health is not "a sufficient treatment for all patients."

That is why Liu said he feels compelled to continue his COVID-19 research.

"My motivation at (first) was to help people I know in China," said Liu, who is of Chinese origin. "And then later, the pandemic came here and it was an obligation to do even more — to help people around me."

Liu said finding funding for research into treatment for new diseases can be difficult because many of them often disappear in a comparatively short time, meaning that by the time a medicine comes to market, demand has evaporated. However, the strain of viruses that cause disease related SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, are appearing with increasing frequency, he said. And that might help boost pandemic-related research funding, he said.

"I think COVID-19 is not going to be the last coronavirus pandemic." Liu said.

John C. Moritz covers Texas government and politics for the USA Today Network in Austin. Contact him at jmoritz@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @JohnnieMo.