Invention Density in Pandemic Times

Matthew Putman
9 min readJul 6, 2020


A response to take decisive action on COVID seemed to involve quick responses by some, and denial from others early in the pandemic. The way this was done has set us back in dangerous ways. Embracing bold and proven technology could have saved us from unnecessary suffering. The presidential task force, WHO, and most institutional leadership have engaged in palpable, tweetable stories of short-term gains that promote simplicity while actually creating confusion and anxiety that hinders progress. We could instead provide a crucial foundation for a future that is safe and free of existential fear. Timing of a vaccine for COVID-19 is uncertain but could be transformational in some cases. It is not however the only way protect us and will not solve all of the problems associated with public health. COVID-19 is not our main problem, it is rather the lack of imagination on the science that we can control.

It is probably natural that as soon as there was talk of COVID taking over our daily lives, there was also focus and attention on the day-to-day and how to get life as we knew it. I was thinking and writing about how to get our lives back to normal in early April, before the largest of the New York surges, when the current nationwide surges were unthinkable.

And I was being a realist, who thought more than anything that science and technology had real solutions to free us from being trapped in our homes. This hope was founded in actual experiences as well as science that I’d been involved with on a continual basis with my teams and partners. It seemed and is, reasonable and attainable.

This is still true, but I also see how easy it is to tell a story of hope, which provides enough guidance to be misunderstood to the point of doing more harm (at least temporarily, which during a pandemic is pretty long) than good.

You rarely find a pessimistic post from me and even in this time, I will spend most of my energy on how the plan for a better life is still possible. I think that my hopes for an expedited Utopia coming from a short-term pain of COVID were misplaced.

In an April 4th blog I say, “Far-UVC will save lives and allow people to continue to live and care for one another.” I had taken a clear plan that involved those such as national partners to Congress and the President for a relatively minor ask for emergency appropriations that would speed the scaling of Far-UVC, which we have yet to receive. (I say yet, mainly because hope springs eternal, not because there is any indication that we will receive it.) The efficacy of Far-UVC is now something that so many outlets are discussing that I seem completely unoriginal (which I am happy to be. I run a business so of course would like funds for that business, but I promise that I would rather see good things happen whether my business does them or someone else does. Though it would be nice…), but I have been working on optimizing a certain wavelength of Far- UVC for years, and now municipalities, and experts (not usually the same thing) are agreeing with the principle. The problem is that that UVC is not created equally, and this is why we were trying to optimize UVC that had a very specific wavelength lower that 250nm.

In fact, a study released by the University of St. Andrews and Ninewells Hospital in Dundee in the Journal Photodermatology, Photoimmunology and Photomedicine focused on advanced computational modeling, and experimentation with various wavelengths of UV Lighting to examine dangers and advances specific to the eradication of air and surface pathogens with COVID in mind, found that Far UVC (the ones we were working on), with 230nm or less, was ideal for avoiding harm to the human skin or eyes while still killing pathogens in the size range of COVID -19. If the wavelengths exceeded 254nm, damage to the eyes and skin is a risk. So, the lower the wavelength of the Far- UVC the better. This sounds like wonderful news, but we were very aware that the production of such specific UVC is expensive and requires a process that was only starting to exist to make it feasible, per my previous writings.

It was just around the corner, giving me confidence that we would be enabling 100s of factories by the end of May. Something that I consider worse than not getting government support happened though. The evidence and the will to make this possible was coopted with a similar sounding story, but one that did not have the benefits we, and the many researchers and scientists had been speaking about. The difference is again the wavelength. The eye and skin damaging 254nm UVC can disinfect but should not be used with people in the room. Far UVC of 230nm and lower wavelengths actually can be used with people present.

Most importantly, if you know nothing about COVID other than people can infect other people (this is why we wear masks after all, though that was even disputed by WHO, President Trump, the Surgeon General and others while the initial outbreak was in full swing), it makes sense that if lights were on all of the time with people in the room, we would be better off and safer than if they were used just to clean surfaces when we were not. Though the effects of UVC and Far-UVC had been known by the scientific community, and published before, on May 22nd the CDC issued a statement saying, “Surfaces Are ‘Not the Main Way’ Coronavirus Spreads”.

So, this meant that we have to focus on disinfection, preferable through light, that works both on surfaces and in the air, which is what we had been calling for and working on.

More recently, and thankfully a group that is much more reputable on the matter than I am, released this research, and described the benefits. Dr. Brenner from Columbia University disseminated this hope about Far- UVC in the range of 205nm to 230nm then on April 21 saying, “Far-UVC light has the potential to be a ‘game changer.” He further went on to say, “It can be safely used in occupied public spaces, and it kills pathogens in the air before we can breathe them in.” This is incredible news, and businesses are even noticing. Those that seem to either not be noticing or are instead standing by something that they believe will be missed by most people, are already putting UVC of the eye and skin damaging variety in public places as a way to reassure us all.

The New York MTA took the unprecedented action on May 6 to close subways between 1AM and 5AM for disinfection. This is for cleaning surfaces, which is not a bad idea, and something that is not so novel, as this was the much too late New York Department of Education approach in early March when they closed the Schools for 2 days if someone working in a school building tested positive for COVID in order to disinfect surfaces. It is true that when the schools did this the CDC report on airborne transmission versus surfaces transmission had not been released, and New Yorkers were left with using only common sense or digging through journals on the spread of other types coronavirus. Back to the MTA though, which I am using as a proxy for almost all government action on Far-UVC.

*I would love examples to prove that this statement is incorrect.

On May 22, public officials put a plan in place, even discussing the work of Dr. Brenner about UVC, pointing out “an efficient, proven, and effective technology for eliminating viruses, including SARS-CoV-2 that causes COVID-19”. MTA Chairman and CEO Patrick J. Foye said. “As we’ve been saying, we’re leaving no stone unturned when it comes to promoting and protecting public health.” There is nothing in these statements, other than likely the “stones” part, that is wrong, and his idea is a good one. The MTA even partnered with a forward-thinking company PURO to make this happen. But it is was always meant to clean surfaces during the hours when the subways were being cleaned. Again, this is perfectly fine, but does not address in any way the CDC pointing out that COVID is not spread primarily on surfaces.

So, it is a good idea, but presents a risk that is incredibly common, which is by giving people hope that there is a breakthrough and then discovering that there is not one that is being implemented, they lose hope entirely.

In this case, there is good news and bad. There is a breakthrough as Dr. Brenner shows, and I spoke of in February when seeking government support. It just is not what the MTA and other municipalities are doing.

A funny side-note is that I was rather vague in my FOX Business interview touting Far-UVC. The first thing to point out is that FOX says that I am an expert on this. I appreciate the sentiment, but I am certainly not an academic expert at all, so please forgive me if that is what it looks like. Those are FOX titles not my own. I had this naïve hope that President Trump and/or his officials, would perhaps see this and put an emergency task force together to scale Far-UVC so that we could start feeling comfortable getting back to a life of going to restaurants, traveling by plane, going to concerts and basketball games etc. (clearly I am new to understanding politics). At least he would like the idea of having some inside campaign rallies. Instead, he made a rather famous speech about this, coincidently, directly follow my appearance on the network giving hope and credence to the concept by saying, “Supposing we hit the body with a tremendous — whether it’s ultraviolet or just very powerful light.” He then started to ponder what that solution could look like resulting in an official safety warning from Clorox, not to mention, a mockery that went viral by comedian, Sarah Cooper.

Oh well, it started out okay…

The problem with this entire Far-UVC thing is not the pondering of Trump, or the use of a different wavelength of Far-UVC, it is the possibility that the idea of building our way out of problems due to science and technological advances is possible at all.

The COVID crisis is a daily battle between hope through denial that it will just disappear, (a hoax giving credence for some to not wear a mask), despair (will not stop until millions die), or conspiracy (engineered in a Wuhan lab).

There are those of us who do believe in science and technology, and there are many examples of this, mostly in the form of stock rallies for pharma companies who are working on vaccines. Unfortunately, those particular rallies of techno-optimism have the same problems as the Far-UVC ones. If expectations are unfairly set, then hope could be lost. You could also replace the stock market responses with MTA responses in the case if you want. Neither speak to how promising and good the technologies are, just how perception can be altered through speculation and manipulation. Certainly Moderna’s success cannot be represented by the ups and downs of that stock even though an innovator and one of the leading contenders for an RNA vaccine.

The other issue is blind trust in single sources. I sat on a panel for the Atlantic Council’s inauguration of a new GeoTech Center and Commission in Washington DC in March were most were completely trusting of Dr. Fauci, both David Bray and I are completely hopeful that a technological solution is available. I admit that David and I were a bit overly optimistic, but the ideas we have are scientifically possible. The devotion to Dr. Fauci must have some people who unconditionally trusted this source discouraged and confused, as he predicted 60,000 American deaths from COVID on April 9th, just 2 days after Trump predicted up to 200,000. While it is widely believed that Trump was guessing (he might very well have been judging from his inconstancies on every aspect of COVID), but we know that no matter how many die by the time this is over, that Fauci was not even close!

So, we are all rightly confused about this mess of responses to how COVID will be resolved, and I have only touched on a small portion of it. I do want to wrap this with a call for action.

We must make sure that we are encouraged by what science and technology can do, which already exists and is waiting to be freed from labs and small factories, and to be discouraged by what our government, public markets, and press are already doing. This is not even meant to praise our technologists as an industry, as an entirely different blog should be written on why the technologies that have already become ubiquitous and have arguably made life worse rather than better.

More than anything, it is to have one of those few and far between days where we look to what is being built, rather than let our own confusion with this new world kill us.

#covid19 #UVC #technology #innovation #government #MTA #progress #pandemic #coronavirus



Matthew Putman

CEO of Nanotronics, a company that is revolutionizing industry by combining Super resolution, AI and robotics to make the worlds most advanced microscope.