IShield is a biotech venture that develops anti-bacterial, antiviral products and technologies by integrating anti-microbials onto different delivery mechanisms(i.e textiles, surface disinfectants, personal hygiene, etc).The IShield team comprises of eminent bioscientists, engineers and textile technologies, with proven in-house R&D capabilities. Ishield assists in controlling the spread of infection and address the health care needs of individuals and institutions. So when COVID-19 struck, the team decided it had to get down to work and develop the mask that would give people the best protection against COVID-19. We sat down for an interview with the founders of IShield — Prof Ram Subramanian, scientific advisor, Prof Robert Deschenes, also a scientific advisory, Dr Anand Kumar, advisor and founder, Hiitesh Topiiwalla, cofounder and director, Jagin Desai, cofounder and executive director, Nitish Satyanarayan, cofounder and science officer and Ashok Vohra, who is also the founder and director at the company.
Could you tell us a little bit about your company?
We at IMPRES are a group of people with deep expertise in science and business and set up the company to help small companies navigate the science and marketing valleys of death. We focus on converting deep science based concepts into products which can be marketed within a span of 24 months. When the COVID-19 crisis came along, we brought our collective experience in science to create a mask that was affordable, reusable and could kill the COVID virus with a high degree of confidence. We designed protocols with the highest scientific rigour and set about meticulously curating a molecule that was already proven safe and could potentially kill the virus based on its molecular structure. Once we had the molecule, and had it tested on bacteria and phages, we collaborated with others to test it on enveloped viruses and on COVID19. IShield was created by IMPRES in order to then bring this product to market. The fabric that is the base of the mask, called TekFabrik, can now find other applications such as in PPE’s, gloves etc, and we are looking at these plausibilities.
How did the team come together?
The IMPRES team has been together for several years now. We are a group of people with deep expertise in science and business. Almost all of us have deep connections to C-CAMP at Bangalore, a unique institution that has allowed lot of biotech enterprise to be born. We realized that many of the start-up’s struggle to cross the valley of death even after they have a good product. It was hard for the young entrepreneurs to understand product validation (market and technological), manufacturing strategies, go to market strategies, supply chain and distribution chain creation and organizational management. IMPRES was started as a vehicle to help companies cross this valley of death. IMPRES was started as a startup itself, with the belief that we would put money, take a stake and help companies to cross the valley of death.
What were the challenges that you faced along the way?
There were a number of challenges that we continue to face. The major one was simply that the protocols to testing kill of viruses in textile did not exist. We had to find the right partners to do it. We used our science connections to get IISC and Mynvax to test on H1N1 virus, University of Southern Florida to test on RSV and with the amazing support from the office of the Principial Scientific Advisor (PSA) to the Government of India and the Secretary Department of Bio-Tech, got connected to Rajiv Gandhi Centre of Biotech (RGCB) in Trivandrum. Luckily for us, the scientists at all these labs were not only outstanding, but enthusiastic to test our product on COVID19. All of these labs use the highest standards and protocols with stringent control conditions, and we were pleased that our Anti-viral and Anti-bacterial data was produced in such an independent fashion by these world-class labs. We are one of the few products of its kind that has been actually tested on COVID-19 clinical isolates and shown clear proof of destroying the dreaded virus. We have also received SITRA certification which proves that our masks are of the highest possible consumer standards. The shutdowns made movements of goods quite difficult. This slowed our ability to get the right design, the chemicals to the correct place, the cloth from the right partner etc. It was just lucky that we had two in-house scientists in Dr. Nitish and Dr. Sai Sudha who could do a lot of the work locally. But even their getting to work at C-CAMP was a challenge. The important lesson is the outstanding support we got from almost everyone who we approached. While, this is an IShield mask, we could not be here without the help of the larger scientific community in India.
Why did you think it was important to create this mask and how do you plan to ensure it reaches those most in need?
There is enough scientific evidence that if everyone in society wore a mask and practised some social distancing, that in 4-8 weeks, we can potentially have a control over COVID-19. But this means wearing the right mask, the right way. This also means making it available at a price point that everyone can afford. Our mask is effective, and if washed once a week, it can last 30 weeks for Rs 199. So, it is less than Rs 1 a day cost of ownership. We can make it even cheaper if it can be mass produced. We are in talks with GOI to see how to mass produce the mask. We are talking with NGOs who want to buy large quantities and distribute it to the needy- we will supply to them at a much reduced cost, as the mass production will reduce the cost. We are hoping a smart NGO will raise significant CSR funding to order say 10 crores masks to distribute (we can then cut the price to half of what it is now at that production levels). In principle, we will work with many organisations to make the mask as accessible as possible.
What other plans do you have in store for the IShield?
Masks are not the only thing needed. We need sanitisers for surfaces, hands, etc. We need PPEs for health care professionals and public workers (police, teachers), school children bring the virus back home (even though they are asymptomatic) in school bags and uniforms. Our hope is to use this technology to revolutionise and use what we wear routinely use as a protective shield. We are looking for partners who will make uniforms, school bags, etc. We will use the small gains we make to reinvest in developing new technologies to create better protection to the public.
The bunch of us who are biologists in the group do feel the great need for vaccines and drugs. But, these take time to develop and are a protection from the virus in the long run. For now, we need to halt the spread – the best way to halt this are masks, social distancing and hand washing. We hope we can halt the virus. Good old fashioned science meets supply-chain meets local-ecosystem meets a massive need – that is ISHIELD! As a business, we are not worried that we will not have anything to do if COVID-19 goes away. Our masks can also offer protection against bacteria and other viruses like the common cold.
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