This Athens Company Could Hold the Key to Distributing a COVID-19 Vaccine

Stirling Ultracold employees stand with the company's freezers. Stirling Ultracold employees stand with the company's freezers via Ohio University News

How Stirling Ultracold’s freezing technology could help make vaccines viable

With the world’s scientists and researchers hard at work on a COVID-19 vaccine, a southeast Ohio startup could be the ones to make it happen. Athens manufacturer Stirling Ultracold has developed unique technology capable of ultra-low cold freezing that revolutionized how freezers were being used to store materials between minus 20 and minus 80 degrees Celsius, typically used in research and lab settings. That temperature is the key to Stirling’s utility with vaccines, which must be stored at those ultra-cool temperatures. Researchers learned during the Ebola outbreak of the mid-2010s that the challenges of keeping vaccines cold led to expensive waste. Stirling, however, is equipped to provide the kind of cooling that was lacking in the fight against that disease.

“Our reference point is Ebola, which was the last really significant viral problem that we faced,” said CEO Dusty Tenney. “Ebola required vaccines that needed to be ultra cold as well, and they were needed in very remote geographies of Africa, which is where Ebola primarily was. There were a lot of vaccines that were lost because of the lack of control and the lack of cold-chain custody. I think there was some learning that took place because of that, and the technology that we’ve been able to develop at Stirling opens up a whole new opportunity to ensure that we don’t lose or damage any of the vaccines that are being distributed from the drug manufacturers.”

Now, Stirling is working around the clock to produce as many of their freezers as possible. Their freezers can store tens of thousands of vaccines, and Tenney said the company is working with the likes of Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, Astrazeneca and more manufacturers who will be bringing the vaccine to the public. Despite their exciting trajectory at the moment, their vaccine utility wasn’t immediately clear, and required the solutions-based approach that startups are known for.

“In the early phases of the pandemic, there was a real question as to where we were going to head, what the world was going to look like and what the response would be,” said Tenney. “And then in May, there was kind of a rally call where we understood that we had to get out in front of this virus and we started to see a national response. When we saw that there would be a race to a vaccine as Operation Warp Speed supported manufacturers, our goals became a bit more clear. We knew that if they were going to accelerate vaccines, the only way to keep them viable is to keep them in much colder temperatures.”

As Stirling worked to identify their role in the process of combating COVID-19, the need for colder temperatures made them uniquely qualified to contribute to the solution. Stirling produces the only way to keep the vaccines cold enough, using their state-of-the-art freezer technology that also happens to be energy efficient.

“Now, we’re at a point where the vaccines are coming down the path and we need to determine how to get them out of our freezer farm and to the pharmacies, health clinics and the critical areas where they will be administered,” said Tenney. “Fortunately, we have a unique device that can keep the materials cold at minus 80 degrees throughout that entire journey. Our device is actually the only one in the market that can manage temperatures between minus 20 and minus 80, which is ideal for vaccine distribution. So instead of having to buy multiple different machines to support that temperature or to try to manage it through a dry ice method, you can buy a single device to manage any vaccine.”

On a business level, any work with vaccine efforts that involve major pharmaceutical companies is an important step for the future of this growing startup. But Tenney said the impact on Stirling’s people is critical, too. He said the team has been energized to work on a project they’re so proud of, putting Stirling on the map through one of the most important missions possible.

“For us, this is huge,” he said. “The 150 people that are down here in southeast Ohio are really doing something for all of mankind, to be honest. I think it’s a great story that our team here at Stirling can go home and connect with what’s taking place and know that they’re creating solutions for a wide range of respective customers that will help provide distribution and storage for vaccines. It is an incredible story, and it really galvanizes our team and our mission. I think we actually get a lot more out of our team because of the impact that we’re having here. We’ve got a pretty unique set of products, and I think being on the world’s stage gives us an opportunity to showcase that.”

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