A technology with a pedigree in tires may be the next big thing for medical swabs as a Greenville company prepares to roll out COVID-19 testing supplies by the millions.
Hoowaki LLC has developed a one-piece injection molded design for a COVID-19 swab that company President Ralph Hulseman believes will close a gap in U.S. and global testing supplies. Hoowaki is a 12-year-old company that specializes in micro surface engineering. Its products can be found in medical equipment, packaging, grips and travel gear.
Hulseman worked in research and development at Michelin for 25 years and managed a lot of sponsored research projects. One of them never panned out for tire manufacturing, so Michelin turned it loose, he said, and that research became a launching pad for Hoowaki.
Hulseman said Hoowaki makes surfaces that are as slippery or “grippy” as needed. They have done it by becoming specialists in friction and how to make the most or least of it.
When the federal government in March called on American entrepreneurs to create supplies to fight the new coronavirus pandemic, Hulseman and his team at Hoowaki knew micro surface technology could play a role. They already had explored designing medical swabs.
“Normally people think of friction as a property of materials. If you want something slippery you use a slippery material like Teflon; if you want something grippy you use a rubber material,” Hulseman said “Well, we discovered that that’s not entirely true. That is, if you make structured physical shapes in the micron size range — a micron is a thousandth of a millimeter — varying from 10 to about 200 microns in size is where the phenomenon of friction occurs. This means we can take the same two materials coming together and make them super grippy or super slippery.”
Through its proprietary Hoowaki Microgrip surface technology, the company creates a thin surface for products that make them slippery, or not. Because of increased friction created by Hoowaki, travel bags don’t slip off travelers’ shoulders, for example, and hammers don’t slip from damp hands, while low-friction vascular catheters slide easily to make medical procedures safer and more comfortable.
“In the case of the swab you may not think of it as a friction problem but, in fact, it is,” Hulseman said.
The challenge is swabs need to both slip and grip. They need to slide into nostrils with little friction, but they need to grab and hold sufficient RNA for testing. Hoowaki’s solution is the “Hoowaki NP Collection Swab.” It combines the company’s technology to make a nasal swab more comfortable for the patient while meeting FDA requirements for extracting a sample.
Because the swab is manufactured by injection molding, it can be produced at any facility that has medical-grade injection molding capability, and those facilities are plentiful, Hulseman said. It also means the product can be made fast and in large numbers.
“Our design allows for production to be quickly scaled in communities around the world — rapidly addressing the rising demand for swabs, a critically important element of all COVID-19 testing,” Hulseman said in a news release.
Hoowaki is making them in small batches now but is partnering with an Upstate plant to begin mass production in July. He expects Hoowaki to produce several million per month. Producing them first in the Upstate has made it more convenient for Hulseman and his team to launch the initial run and also helped the partner plant preserve jobs that had been endangered by the pandemic-caused recession, he said.
“We expect this to be a long-term opportunity for us. One reason is the technology is something we can modify to make swabs for other uses. There are many, many uses for swabs,” he said. “And if the market goes large and then crashes, we expect to come out the other side as the winners.”
They will win, he said, not just because of scalability, but lab testing, and field testing with the help of Prisma Health, has demonstrated the swab meets industry standards and is as good as the standard flocked filament swab in collecting RNA.
Hulseman said several public-private partnerships helped provide start-up funding for the swab’s development.
“As is the case for many businesses in today’s environment, Hoowaki LLC adapted quickly to meet new challenges where demand is outpacing supply so we could remain not only viable as a company, but also pursue this pioneering technology,” he said in the news release. “We’re grateful for the backing of the Greenville Local Development Corp. and SC Launch, an investment affiliate of the SCRA, who have been instrumental in helping us develop the Hoowaki NP Collection Swab.”
“Hoowaki LLC is a great example of a small business that has proven to be a powerhouse of innovation during a time of incredible challenge,” David Barnett, chairman of the Greenville Local Development Corp., said in the release.
This story originally appeared in the June 15, 2020, print edition of the GSA Business Report.C