For Mingyu Qiao, the decision to move to Cornell unfolded though happenstance and opportunity. During his master’s and PhD studies at Auburn University, Qiao focused his research on halamine. This unique antimicrobial compound was invented by a chemistry professor working in Qiao’s group at Auburn nearly 30 years prior. Although the compound had demonstrated great potential across various sectors, Qiao soon identified halamine’s capability to revolutionize the antimicrobial safety industry.
Toward the end of his time at Auburn, Qiao came across an advertisement, seeking a postdoctoral research associate for a project, using materials engineering methods for solving microbiology-related safety challenges. “The nature of my research was an exact match for the stated requirements, and the professor who posted the advertisement is now my supervisor at Cornell.”
Qiao now works in Minglin Ma’s lab, Biological and Environmental Engineering, conducting research on halamine’s real-world applications, alongside formulating a start-up venture, Halamine Inc. The startup’s mission is to commercialize halamine products. Currently the primary substance used to optimize antimicrobial safety is silver. Urinary catheters, for instance, are often coated with silver to provide a layer of protection against potentially fatal infections. The high production costs and debatable efficacy of silver, however, makes its continued use in the industry questionable.
“Commercializing a specific technology-related product like ours is a tricky process. There will definitely be uncertainty, but we have sound fundamentals.”
Qiao believes halamine is the answer. The synthetic compound is nearly twice as effective at treating major infections when compared to silver. This schism in efficacy only increases with duration. “The present technology clearly requires an upgrade, and we believe we have the best possible solution for the issue.”
Halamine’s most potent advantage over silver, however, is its rechargeability. The compound, Qiao explains, possesses a unique structure that allows it to store chlorine. The chlorine, in turn, can be restored by pouring bleach over the applied area. This process can be repeated with the same initial covering of halamine on a surface for up to three months. This durability, Qiao posits, would significantly decrease operating costs across various fields.
“Healthcare-related manufacturing units, for instance, spray bleach over their production units daily as an antimicrobial safety measure. The integration of Halamine Inc. products would bring zero added operational costs, while lowering overall spend on safety equipment.”
Halamine Inc.’s First Products
Qiao is working to introduce two halamine products during the initial years of commercialization. The first is a small container which can spray-coat surfaces with a thin film of halamine. Qiao plans to market it as a sanitation tool across the food manufacturing and healthcare industries, with the vision of eventually selling the product for domestic cleaning as well. The second, more specialized product, is a halamine-coated urinary catheter, which can supplant silver-coated catheters as the industry standard.
“Currently, the cost of manufacturing silver-coated catheters totals around 30 dollars. Our product, due to the synthetic nature of halamine, will cost just four dollars to make.” The product’s efficacy, combined with its significantly low manufacturing costs, conveys halamine’s immense potential for commercialization, which Qiao is keen to harness as soon as possible.
Funding for Initial Start Up
In addition to receiving grants for engineering entrepreneurship from the National Science Foundation, Qiao is a prospective client Cornell’s Praxis Center, a brand new startup incubator, which will help bridge the gap between scientific product research and commercialization for promising ventures such as Qiao’s. Working with the Praxis Center, will allow Qiao to acquire an understanding of the dynamics of business, which would have been difficult to learn in a purely academic environment. Aside from lessons in entrepreneurship, the Praxis Center has also assisted Qiao in securing the external funding he needed to begin early market testing, with the goal of moving to sales soon.
“Many researchers often continue to rely on grants for years to conduct extensive product testing, but we’ve made a conscious effort not to go down that route. Our aim is to generate profits, and the only way to do that is to go to market.”
Readying for Scale Up
Several steps remain before the product goes to market. Qiao received a Cornell engineering and prototyping grant and has engaged a leading food manufacturing firm in New York State to begin plant trials for initial market testing. Although the United States has a large appetite for innovation in the biomedical industry, there are many organizations from whom he will require a seal of approval before going to market. These include the United States Environmental Protection Agency and Food and Drug Administration, as well as safety regulations across the healthcare industry.
Over the past year, Qiao has attended nearly 20 trade expositions, showcasing antimicrobial-related innovations across the country. He has also interviewed hundreds of potential customers. He knows the competition in his industry makes it difficult to stand out, but Qiao has confidence in his technology.
“Commercializing a specific technology-related product like ours is a tricky process. There will definitely be uncertainty, but we have sound fundamentals. As long as our product is fulfilling a genuine need, we will always have a market.”