Catastrophe can be a powerful catalyst for invention. It was a deadly pathogen that turned Jason Kang and his friends into inventors. But it’s not the one you’re thinking of.
In 2014, Ebola was ravaging West Africa. Kang was a junior at Columbia University at the time. Like many other people, he wanted to help but felt there was little he could do. What he didn’t know was that that six years later, he would be a co-founder of a company called Kinnos and hold a patent on an invention called Highlight® that could help save lives during the next viral outbreak.
We spoke with Kang about the school project that launched his career and why now, as COVID-19 continues to spread globally, it’s important to ask two questions: Who will this virus inspire? What inventions could it spark?
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
What set you on the path to becoming an inventor?
It happened during the Ebola outbreak in 2014 when I was in college. It was one of those things where it was just dominating the media headlines, you read about all of the news and you just kind of felt powerless to help, not so unlike what I think a lot of people here are experiencing right now with COVID-19.
Columbia had an Ebola Design Challenge, kind of like a hack-a-thon for global health. They brought in first responders and infectious disease experts who described the real problems they were facing in the field, and then challenged us to invent solutions to aid in the response.
My classmates, Katherine Jin and Kevin Tyan, and I were all really interested in global health and medicine, so we kind of just jumped at the chance to do work on a project that might be able to help protect people’s lives. We decided to focus on the problem of decontamination.
A lot of the healthcare workers we talked to described the difficulty of using disinfectants like bleach correctly and guaranteeing complete coverage. Because bleach is transparent, you can’t really see where you’re applying it, and you tend to miss a lot of spots. Have you gotten every single square inch of your hazmat suit, every nook, cranny and wrinkle?
Studies have shown that about fifty percent of all surfaces in healthcare settings are not cleaned properly. Disinfectants also require a contact time to sit on the surface undisturbed for a few minutes to kill everything. If you wipe it off too early or touch a wet spot too early, you can get infected.
Another problem is that disinfectants have a tendency to bead up and form droplets that roll off waterproof surfaces. If you imagine rain rolling off an umbrella, the same thing happens with surfaces like HazMat suits or medical tents, and you get all these gaps in coverage.
That can literally mean the difference between life and death. During the Ebola crisis, more than 881 healthcare workers were infected and 513 died.
So, we looked at the process and saw all this human error, and we decided to come up with something to eliminate that. We wanted to bridge the gap between having the disinfectant and actually being able to use it effectively.
Tell us about your invention.
We created a product we call Highlight®. It’s a patented color additive platform that’s meant to be combined with existing disinfectants. Our product on its own is not a disinfectant, we don’t replace them. Instead you mix it into disinfectants at point-of-use and that colorizes it blue, so you can easily see where it’s being applied. It fully sticks to and covers waterproof surfaces, and the color fades from blue to colorless after a few minutes to approximate when the contact time has been met and decontamination is done.
Why hadn’t this already been invented? Were other people working on this issue before your team tackled it?
I would say that trying to create a colorized disinfectant has been on people’s radars for at least two decades. But I think the hurdle was always how do you get the color to last in the container at the point of manufacture and get it to fade on the surface. Those two concepts are kind of opposing forces, and so the way we dealt with that issue was creating a point-of-use additive which allows us to have much more fine-tuned control over how intense the color is and how long the color lasts. An important technical milestone was also the separation between getting the color to last for hours in the bulk liquid solution versus getting the color to fade on the surface in minutes.
This invention really changed the course of your education and career. Describe what happened next.
Initially with the Ebola Design Challenge, we thought this was a project we’d put on our resume, and that’s it. But pretty early on, we got traction with the Fire Department of New York. They invited us to demo the product as part of an Ebola response simulation and ended up asking if they could buy it. That’s the moment when we realized we had created something actually useful, and we decided to start Kinnos to bring the technology to the world. Soon after that, we won the USAID Fighting Ebola Grand Challenge grant, which provided us with funding to implement Highlight® in West Africa.
How was Highlight® used during the Ebola crisis?
During our senior year, we went to Liberia to field test Highlight® at Ebola Treatment Units. And that was a really, really powerful experience for us. It’s one thing to hear about the people who are suffering on the news, it’s another to actually go there in person and work with them.
We were able to give Highlight® to healthcare workers, and they described how much more confident and how much safer they felt about being protected when they took off their HazMat suits. And that feeling of empowerment is something that has been really motivating for us.
How were you able to deploy your product so quickly?
I think one of the things we did well to have an immediate impact was to create something simple to integrate into what healthcare workers were already doing, and not require them to radically overhaul their protocols. So that’s why we took the approach of making a point-of-use additive.
We were lucky during the Ebola outbreak that we had the support from USAID to get in contact with NGOs responding in the field. It’s quite difficult to actually introduce something new in the middle of a crisis.
Your company has also shifted to creating products that can be used for everyday decontamination in hospitals and other healthcare settings.
Most hospitals here in the U.S. tend to use wipes and not sprays, so we developed a second product called Highlight® Wipes, which is a lid that attaches on top of existing wipe canisters.
Imagine you have a bucket of wipes, you put our lid on top of that bucket. As the wipes get fed through our lid, they’ll get impregnated with a liquid version of our Highlight® color chemistry. Now you have these colorized wipes which you can use to wipe down bedside tables, bedrails, countertops, and so on.
We did a soft launch at the end of 2019 in a couple of hospitals. It went really well, and we recently closed a new round of funding to ramp up production. We’re targeting a full scale launch this summer.
What’s your perspective now during the COVID-19 pandemic?
The importance of infection prevention, and particularly surface disinfection, has really skyrocketed. I think for a long time people have been largely focused on vaccines, diagnostics, or treatment, things like drugs and medical devices. Prevention is a little bit more abstract. If you do your job right, then nothing happens. It’s less tangible than a drug where you can see immediate impact. Now with COVID-19, I think everyone realizes that prevention is just as important, and that there are multiple factors that are needed to make prevention work beyond just vaccines.
What would you say to other students today and other potential inventors?
If you had asked me at the beginning of college what I’d be doing after graduation, it wouldn’t have been disinfection.
But we feel very grateful to be able to work on something that we care a lot about and that can have a meaningful societal impact.
You never know where a solution is going to come from. In our case, it came from three college students looking for a way to help.