USAID Highlights Team Behind Pigmented Bleach

Left to right: The Fire Department of the City of New York has incorporated Highlight into their decontamination protocol (Photo courtesy of FDNY); Jason Kang, Katherine Jin, and Kevin Tyan (Photos by Eileen Barroso)

The student team behind Highlight, a pigmented bleach solution that improves decontamination of infectious diseases, has won the USAID Fighting Ebola Grand Challenge. The trio of students, including biomedical engineering junior Jason Kang and teammates Katherine Jin (Computer Science and Biology, Columbia College) and Kevin Tyan (Biology, Columbia College), is one of just 15 teams selected from more than 1,500 applicants who will receive USAID support and whose product will undergo intensive testing to ensure readiness for production and field deployment.

“This has been such a long journey since October—it’s been very tough, but it’s also been incredibly rewarding,” says Kang. “I can’t even begin to count the number of times we met up at night and on weekends testing all the different iterations of our formula, calling up suppliers, writing and submitting proposals, making trips up to the medical campus, and so on. We are really excited and proud to be chosen by USAID to continue our work!”

Highlight was born when the team took part in last fall’s challenge to develop low-cost, technology-driven solutions to combat the Ebola crisis. Watch the video to find out how. (Video by Jane Nisselson)

After attending the information session for last fall’s Ebola Design Challenge, Kang asked his teammates if they wanted to collaborate on a solution. Not only were they already friends, says Kang, “we all have particularly strong skill sets in this area. We’ve each done several years of biomedical research.” Jin has worked directly with patients and doctors in hospitals, and Tyan is part of the team that runs CUEMS, Columbia University’s volunteer ambulance corps. Kang himself has experience deploying medical devices in resource-poor countries (he also is vice president of engineering for start-up Jibon Health Technologies).

“It just made sense that this would be a team that could tackle a global health issue,” he says. And that they did.

Kang, Jin, and Tyan pushed through their classes, homework, tests, and papers, while spending hundreds of hours on their project, refining Highlight, and figuring out how to produce and market it. They quickly formed a company, Kinnos Inc.; advisors include Dean Mary C. Boyce; Samuel Sia, associate professor of biomedical engineering; Aaron Kyle, lecturer in biomedical engineering; and Ian Lipkin, John Snow Professor of Epidemiology at the Mailman School.

Highlight colorizes a standard bleach solution and modifies the solution’s liquid properties to provide visualization of sprayed regions, improve coverage and adherence to all surfaces, and increase antiviral potency. It can be added directly to bleach solutions currently used in the field and is compatible with standard- issue contractor sprayers. “It’s extremely versatile and highly effective, and can be used to decontaminate any infectious disease, not just Ebola,” Jin notes.

While bleach is the most commonly used disinfectant for surfaces contaminated with the Ebola virus, it is transparent and forms droplets when sprayed on waterproof surfaces like personal protective equipment suits. “So it’s really difficult to ensure complete topical coverage with bleach during decontamination, and that can leave health care workers susceptible to infection,” Tyan explains. Highlight improves the effectiveness of bleach mist decontamination and ensures the safety of health care workers, enabling them to visualize with color exactly what has or has not been decontaminated.

During the Ebola Design Challenge, the students often had to choose between going to class and making their presentations, or going out on the weekend versus staying in to test a new reagent. Says Kang, “Back in November, I decided not to study for my organic chemistry midterm and go to Mt. Sinai Hospital to demo Highlight in front of the FDNY. I got absolutely destroyed on the test, but the FDNY ended up incorporating Highlight into their decontamination protocol, so it was worth it!”

With the newfound USAID support, the team’s immediate goal is to see Highlight implemented on the field in West Africa, and, down the road, implemented on an international scale in preparation for future epidemics. This summer, they will work on improving the technology behind Highlight and expanding their market and partnerships.

—by Holly Evarts