How this Dayton startup is revolutionizing antimicrobial technology
Nearly 2 billion people don’t have access to local, clean water and, as the global water crisis worsens, innovative solutions that bring clean water to the masses are needed now more than ever. Dayton startup AIMM is creating one solution, combining innovation with simplicity to develop materials that can purify water.
“I was working on porous materials pretty much all my career,” said Founder Luis Estevez. “I started looking into using them for water purification and being able to make carbon-based water filters that are antimicrobial. Water stressors are getting worse due to climate change and water is going to be everybody’s problem, so this is where I can make the biggest impact. I founded my startup based on this idea, but as soon as the company was set in motion, COVID hit.”
When the pandemic began, the demand for personal protective equipment like N95 masks inspired a shift in focus for AIMM. Estevez saw similarities in the carbon-based porous materials AIMM used for water filtration and thought of a way to apply that same concept to the plastic-based N95 masks. Now, the company is developing a self-disinfecting layer to sit on top of the masks and kill viruses or bacteria, making them safely reusable.
“The material scientist in me dug into the problem and started looking at the way these masks are made and how they work,” he said. “These are porous materials too, but they’re made with plastics. It’s a carbon-based material much like the filters I was working on for water. We can put a self-disinfecting layer on top of the N95 masks that will make it inhospitable to viruses and bacteria so they are killed or deactivated. Then you have a mask that’s safe to reuse. This was an idea for the next outbreak – we’re going to need to be more prepared than we are now.”
Estevez began his undergraduate career at 30 with a degree in Mechanical Engineering before obtaining his Ph.D. from Cornell University. He wanted to work on projects with real world applications, a desire that led him to a fellowship with Pacific Northwest National Labs. After 3 years researching battery and energy systems, he began working at the University of Dayton Research Institute to pursue his interest in porous materials.
“A colleague of mine was working at UDRI and told me ‘this place is great,’” said Estevez. “There, I was introduced to different kinds of small businesses in science and technology that we worked with all the time. I realized I could be doing what these small businesses are doing, starting off with cool scientific and technological ideas and transitioning them into the commercial space.”
As the company makes their own transition into the marketplace, they have received funding from MedTech Launch Fund and the United States Air Force, through their Small Business Technology Transfer program, to further develop their technology into viable prototypes. The company is relocating to a new lab space at the Russ Research Center, a move that Estevez hopes will provide AIMM with even more freedom to continue researching and developing their prototypes.
“The support from MedTech Launch Fund and the Air Force is enabling us to get to a viable product to show that what we’ve proposed can work,” he said. “It’s really something when the Air Force has interest in your water purification technology. Besides developing those prototypes, it’s been huge for us to get into our new lab space, which we’ve been slowly setting up and moving into. It gives me a lot of joy to have my own research lab to direct and bring in a team that can help me do it.”
For Estevez, Dayton has been the ideal location to develop and eventually commercialize the technology of AIMM. As a scientist turned entrepreneur, he said the “entrepreneurial lifeblood” of southwest Ohio, along with the resources and support AIMM has received, has made the area the perfect place to grow his startup.
“I find Dayton to be a complete gem of an area. I always say this city punches above its weight class, and we have all this tech talent and wonderful resources,” he said. “The Entrepreneur Center’s support and mentorship has been amazing. I think the cost of living here, the resources and support and the technical talent makes this the perfect place to start something — and start something big. I couldn’t be happier about how I ended up here to launch my company. I love this area and its entrepreneurship — it’s phenomenal.”