Skip to content

Ep. 4: and the RK Mellon Foundation

Summer of 50 PGH Tech Stories

We have an awesome story of how Boston-based linked up with the Pittsburgh's RK Mellon Foundation to get protective masks to frontline workers. is a non-profit effort to mass-produce reusable, sanitizable Emergency Use face shields for medical purposes and distribute them to the clinicians who do not have access to FDA cleared equipment.

Comcast is powering up the Summer of 50 PGH Tech Stories and we're raising awareness fo Beyondthe


Everybody it is Jonathan Kersting here hanging out with the summer of 50, Pittsburgh tech stories. And I'm just having a lot of fun here because this is our opportunity to really put a focus on some of the great work that's happening in today's story. It goes beyond Pittsburgh, which I think is so cool. I love it when Pittsburgh and other regions kind of come together to solve really tough problems. And that's our story today. It's all around, getting PPP personal protection equipment out folks through the whole COVID crisis. And we got this really cool combination going on here. And we're talking to Sam Reiman, RK Mellon foundation and Joe Chung from Red Star. And before we get into that, I always got to recognize Comcast as our sponsor here because out them I could not tell the story. So thanks to Comcast for that. And everyone knows these stories, please go over to beyond the we're trying to raise some money there. Because the whole idea is to get as many computers in the students hands is possible. So when you go back to school in the fall, everyone's ready to start learning as far as that goes. And Joe, welcome to the show today. So glad to have you here. And I really cannot wait to tell the story because when I heard about this all about mass I was like this is something that has to be in our 50 stories. But guys, thanks for hanging out.

Thanks for having us as it's the same

like with your background in RK Mellon. Everyone knows RK Mellon in Pittsburgh, you guys are like this like pillar. What makes things happen in Pittsburgh? So what's your background real quick? And what's up rk mo in these days?

Well, so yeah, I serve as the director of the Richard King Mellon Foundation. And also, I'm a trustee on the board of directors of the foundation. And my background, started kind of initially here in Pittsburgh. When I was in graduate school, Carnegie Mellon, found my way into an internship, where it helped me learn about philanthropy. And then, long story short found my way back to Pittsburgh, and I've been working in this space since 2007. And it's just a wonderful kind of moment in time to kind of be in this role in particular and at this foundation, For us to be able to address all of the various problems and issues that we see as a part of this crisis. And I'm just excited to continue this work and to be part of this conversation here today.

Oh, absolutely. I mean, really, that's why Pittsburgh I think it's just so blessed to have the foundation's to have like RK Mellon because it has really made a difference as we've been navigating through the COVID situation. And so Joe Chung, Red Star, what are you doing hanging out with us today? I know you're working. Really cool stuff and stuff we're gonna be talking about today is I think it's gonna blow everybody's mind. So what's your background?

So, so I grew up, born and raised in Chicago, I moved to Boston when I was 17 to go to MIT, and I never left on 55 Now, I've spent my entire professional career in this area doing startups I guess I'm a serial entrepreneur and if you kill like four people that makes you a serial killers, I suppose Serial but now so I am I guess I'd probably best known for starting a company called our technology group in the one dot o e commerce generation, web generation. So that was a pretty big software company, took it public that did not do that whole thing. And then since I've just been working on companies that my best friend and business partner who started my first company would need still my best friend and business partner. We're starting companies we care about, and that's what that's what red stars for So, so, I got roped into the mass sun thing, you know, like, like everyone else, a little kind of serendipitously. I'm an alumnus of the Media Lab at MIT. One of the one of the first people who got going on the mass sun project contacted someone at the Media Lab they called me and said, Hey, you know, you should jump into this. I think they could use your help. And and I ended up you know, trying to help helping helping lead that project.

Very cool. So like to just give us our listeners a little background on masks on and what it's all about, give us like the elevator pitch for lack of a better term for masks

Yeah, yeah. So it really began with two young anesthesiologists residents at a hospital called Brigham and Women's it's one of the teach at Harvard teaching hospitals. And they both independently kind of came up with the same idea when faced with this huge teepee shortage, which is still ongoing in many parts of the country. And the idea was pretty simple. I one of them had just returned from Hawaii, and had been doing a bunch of snorkeling, right with the sort of newfangled full face snorkel masks, and these go right over your head, I'm not going to put it on you don't build it here me but you know, right like that, and it seals around your entire face. And you breathe I haven't removed right now. And I'll talk about this thing in a second. When you breathe through this, this circle, too, right? And in some sense, it was kind of like an obvious idea. Your head is in this hostile environment, saltwater breeze and you're breathing through. Exactly, and so, so the The simplest idea they had was like, you could remove the snorkel attachment. And if you could attach one of these, which is a very, very high efficiency, but really common hospital breathing filter, if you could just put them together, then suddenly you have an amazing PP where all of the air is being filtered through this, this, this is a 99.999% viral filter, five nines versus a 95. So which filters 95%, right? You can filter essentially 100% of all the air and unlike the PV shortage, these things are pretty widely available there. There's no there's no there's no consumer demand for them. So you know that their hospitals have them so that was the idea and and they wanted to see if they reached out to the tech community in Boston area to see if someone could make this happen.

Very cool. I mean, what an ingenious idea snorkeling in Hawaii and you get this idea and then yeah, you idea that we want to make this happen. So then how did the rk Mellon Foundation get involved? How did you guys connect up and realize that there's some synergy going on here by working together, we can start getting these masks into the right people's hands.

It started with the foundation putting together a strategy about how to respond to COVID-19. And there were four pillars of that strategy, the first being to support efforts around vaccine development, the second being to repurpose drugs that could have some impact on Coronavirus. The third being investments in technology, whether that be rapid diagnostic test or other technology such as apps to help slow or halt the spread of the disease and then finally, repurposing manufacturing to make personal protective equipment for frontline workers and our healthcare practitioners. And so, as we started to release information about that strategy, we deployed the press for the first time really in the foundation's history. It's not something that we had done prior. We've been we've been And historically, really quiet about the work that we do. And one of the benefits that we've observed kind of by doing that is not only to tell our story and to share all of these wonderful stories about the role of philanthropy in helping to address so many issues, but in particular, what it allowed us to do was to end up reaching audiences that we really didn't anticipate we would be able to connect with. And so very quickly, some of the relationships that I have in my network in particular, in this case, individual named Matt Flanagan, who runs a PR firm in Boston called fam a PR, saw some of the news that we put out and said, Hey, really fascinating to see what you're doing. We had built a relationship. I've known Matt for a really long time. We talked about Boston and Pittsburgh and always are thinking about what are different ways we can connect the tech community different ways we can sort of support each other's work, kind of in the nonprofit sector. And you know, we put our patriot Steelers thing aside.

Yeah, we saw this, man, you could do that.

Exactly. We just thought for the, for the greater good. I mean, we have to we just have to stop with the rivalry. And so he said, Hey, I'm working with this wonderful group called mask on sending me some of the information. And I said, Hey, please broker the introduction. I think this is a wonderful technology. And so much of what we saw coming out of this, too, is the innovation that Joe just described. And I think entrepreneurs inventing things in real time coming up with all of these solutions to major issues around total collapse of supply chains, inability for certain healthcare practitioners to get PP because it's either too expensive, or they're being outbid by some of the larger systems, and particularly in rural and low income communities, where there there's just virtually no resources to be able to do some of this work and to purchase this pp. So when we got connected with Joe, we just had a couple conversations. It was pretty clear right out of the gate that it was a match for our funding program. The fact that it was in Boston, what we do is we we could work with anyone across the country. As long as there's some benefit to Southwest or PA, and when so that translated very quickly into us thinking through how many maps can be deployed into these communities that we are working in every day. With with support from the foundation and so that's, that's really what brought us together. And that allowed us to kind of move at lightning speed not to be able to bring bring these wonderful new mask and this technology that Joe and his team developed down here to the Pittsburgh region.

I see that's me. That's why I put a huge smile on my face. Because I just love seeing that there's resources in Pittsburgh, you connect with some smart minds out in Boston. So when RT regions are working together, great things happen, and we're going to save lives and keep people safe. Right all about and being able to do that, as you said, like enlightening see, so So how long did it take to actually develop this mask and get it ready and get it into people's hands?

Yeah, you know, so. So I think I think speed is one of the most important things that that's been been part of the whole story here. And we When I tell the story I about about the program, you know, this is something that in some sense just couldn't have happened, except because of the pandemic. And then technologies like zoom, being able to very rapidly make connection, but build trust understanding and then move forward into some action. So this is a story of three disparate groups who don't normally work very closely together or very tightly together, coming together in a very, very rough period of time. So there's the medical industry, those are the doctors who needed these things who are facing, you know, doing intubation is facing aerosolized virus every day. And I and really, you know, very being very concerned for themselves and for their colleagues, the high tech community, you know, folks who are good in computers and manufacturing and just know how to build things and their philanthropy. And what became very apparent to us pretty quickly at the beginning of this, this is back in mid March. Now, with that, you know, the rich hospital systems We're probably going to be okay, because they have tons of money and if they're bait if they're buy and 95 on the open market, they're going to win. Okay, it was everybody else that was going to going to suffer. And this was, you know, not a great consequence of the sort of free market dynamics. So what we realized really early on so this is this is a pretty expensive piece of gear one thing I should say, in some ways it's it should be more economical than the disposable at 95 because this is reusable so that so this this last score, you know, kind of indefinitely the filters lasts for for quite a long time. And these are cheap these are these are a couple bucks. But but but but you know, to get one of these, it's like a $50, recreational scuba mask, snorkel mask, and you know, it costs about $10 or so to make one of these. This is the fabricated adapter that will recreate it. This is the hard part in some sense looks just a little dumb little piece of plastic but getting this exactly right. It's pretty Be tough, and then you have to assemble it and get it out there. We realized really early that, that if we were going to have an impact for the communities that really mattered, we had to donate these, we couldn't ask people to buy them we couldn't go through, we couldn't make them cheap or subsidized. We just had to have clinicians be able to request them, we vet the request, we send the mass and and and that, that that was that that was you should and that's obviously where flattery comes in. You know, the only way to do that is to have the mission orientated dollars that can enable us to to fulfill that mission immediately. So, you know, I think if we looked at any kind of purchasing procurement process, you'd be talking weeks months, you know, it's a very hard thing for people to buy stuff. If you're just donating dresses to the physicians, we're talking days and that that's what happened. It's all about time is of the essence and which is really gets me fired up is the fact like RJ Mellon stands up to do this type of work right? And that they see the need able to mobilize those dollars and put them in the right place. Putting the folks hands are working super fast and innovating super quick. And all of a sudden we have this completely unique solution. I mean, but it's not to like about that. So how many massive are on are on people's faces right now? How many? How many are in the field? doing what they're supposed to be doing?

Yeah, so so we've sent over 18,000 of these now. And because of the generosity of RK Mellon and some other benefactors, we have capacity for at least another 10,000. And probably probably more than that we're still working out, you know, exactly. The, you know, we get money coming in, goodness going out, but we're good and we want to keep you know, we really want to get the word out. The other challenges that the places we're trying to reach aren't necessarily the easiest to target with our message. So So again, I think one of the huge benefits of working with RK Mellon and fits in the Pittsburgh area is there the local knowledge and awareness and Build be able to build that presence in the, in the, you know, Southern gating. So I think that's really important to us as well. So we're trying to get the word out. And the unmask are available. You know, we are seeing a resurgence of the virus across the country and I think this is something that that, you know, is a really valuable resource. I love the fact that

like it has a very long life like it's not disposable, you can keep using it over and over again. I think it's just really important because I think we all know we're gonna see resurgence in certain areas and at some point like and use it for a while now you have it there's there's not that rush to figure out like, who has the magic? No, I got it. It's right here and it's ready to go. So I think that's a really important part as far as that goes. So what's next? As far as that is, it seems like obviously the future is wide open and aware of what our next steps

Well, I think you know, one of the most exciting things is getting these devices to the to folks who don't normally we would That's what I think of. So originally we were thinking the folks doing intubation just just the critical metal medical workers, emergency room, people that and whatnot. We got a request THROUGH THROUGH THROUGH Sam and the RK Mellon Foundation to equip, I think, three or 400 firefighters emergency response of firefighters in the area. And you can you can probably fill in more details there. But but that that that to me was was incredibly exciting because again, they're they they're struggling with getting getting the appropriate GP. They saw this as a perfect solution they're very comfortable with with a technology, you know, and so I think that's what that was pretty, pretty great. So I think that we're looking at as the as the economy reopens and yet, emergency workers and frontline workers are still facing, you know, personal hazard. I think that's really the thing that really, you know, sticks with me. We're asking folks to risk their lives in the course of You know, facilitating our lives and I feel like like, you know, we owe it to them to to protect them as best as we can.

Very much so.

Right. Yeah, I think to Joe's point, you know, looking at the sort of for the benefit of philanthropy, I think typically it's viewed as well, there's capital, and that that's the primary contribution that a philanthropy or a donor could make. But I think increasingly, it's sort of the networks that we bring down to these discussions as well. And I'd say, Joe, in his life as a venture capitalist, and also as a startup entrepreneur, understands that well, and I think it's less understood kind of in the work that we do in the nonprofit space. And so when you've got this wonderful mask apps in that network, it would have required Joe and his team to knock on doors and to sort of build relationships with people from scratch. I think in particular, our ability to sort of go directly to the federally qualified health centers which other 20 of them across the city of Pittsburgh in the county and those are serving the most at risk. Residents here. Who typically have no ability to pay for their health care? The firefighters that Joe mentioned. So in the rural communities, volunteer firefighters are all there is like they These aren't paid entities, they have virtually no dollars, any of this equipment, so separate from COVID. Think about it for a second, like when they respond to a car fire, the synthetic materials and those types of things that burn in those fires have been increasing rates of cancer and other things among firefighters and providers in general. So they've had to purchase like really sophisticated respirators. This is another example that they're showing up to participate in the calls where they're transporting individuals who may be infected with Coronavirus to the hospital, but yet they don't have pp. So those are the types of things that you don't really think about. In particular, though, too. All of these are starting to come together in the sense that when we supported the work to get the rapid oral Cova diagnostic tests into those federally qualified health centers now 5000 tests into those spaces. where, again, if you have no healthcare or you have limited ability to get on transit and go through some of the traditional drive throughs, or go to your physician, now you can just walk right into one of these f C's, you get the diagnostic test. Well, what if you're on the other end, and you're a physician, and you don't have pp. So it's great that we now have this ability to test but if the healthcare workers aren't protected, so all of these things, there's, there's this kind of complimentary nature to it. Man, we've been trying really hard to understand sort of the entire system and how if you want free accessible testing, you also have to have close to free and accessible IE in those communities that have the least ability to pay for them. And so I think that's a wonderful example of how how this all comes together.

Absolutely, absolutely. identity. I think this story just goes to show the worst of times brings out the absolute best in people in organizations to come together and make things happen as far as that goes. So my final question for the day is our Comcast Question of the day since we're all about trying to bridge the digital divide, we're trying to raise some money on that, from beyond the laptops. What are some of the what are some of the best things that we can be doing as individuals or as a nation or as a community to shorten this divide to to bridge the gap? As far as that goes? Any thoughts on that saying, and I'll ask Joe as well, too?

Well, I can speak to the work that we're doing at the Foundation, I think certainly, kind of as part of our economic impact of recovery, which is a separate pillar of our COVID-19 response. We wanted to get out ahead of the issues that we knew were coming as a result of sort of the economic collapse associated with the pandemic. And one of the significant consequences of that are that you don't have kids in school. And so we've funded quite a bit of work to sort of repurpose and refurbish computers and other technology to get those into the hands of kids immediately, looking at partnerships or funding partnerships with Carnegie Mellon around creating Wi Fi networks that are extended across the communities that don't have access to broadband. So similar to the idea of you've got curative tests to do the diagnostics, but you don't have PP if you have Wi Fi, but no computers or vice versa. So we kind of have to look at that kind of comprehensively. And so those are just a few of the different things we're working on. The last thing I'd say, and I think this is a great sort of segue into the work that Joe's doing is all of that broadband and Wi Fi computers also can be linked very clearly to 3d printers and the types of tools that have become so commonplace in the way that education is being delivered. And this new hands on DIY ability to experiment and the filters that Joe has been talking about that attached to his mask. Many of them are 3d printed, printed due to using additive manufacturing. And so I think it's separate from just like the basics of how do we get people Wi Fi? How do we get them computers? How do we enable them with these new devices and technologies that truly represent industry 4.0 and are now accessible and can be right in your own home. And to incorporate that into the way that all kids are learning about technology, but also thinking about what they might do as a career in their future. So that those are a few thoughts from taking it one

step further there, Sam, I like that. Joe, I know, hey,

I love him. And that's cool.

No, I, you know, I couldn't agree more with what Sam said, You know, I think the return on investment on putting these enabling technologies into, you know, kids hands, especially at this time, when they're not going to be in the fiscal schools or, or, you know, may may get locked out and be, you know, have to go back and forth between, you know, physical and virtual AI if you just couldn't get a better return on investment in society. So I think, you know, coordination is probably the most important thing. There's, there's so much great stuff that's happening. What you want to do is you want to have it together with a common purpose under coordination. And I'm really encouraged at the role that the large foundations like rk Milliken can play in these things. I, I saw it in firsthand in my own experience here. And I should say I'm actually a trustee. I'm on a charitable foundation board a fairly significant one here in Boston, you know, we would never have been able to have been able to move at this speed in this way. And you know, we did do some very quick things in Boston. I don't want to denigrate my colleagues in any way. But but but this is a different model. And I think it's really fascinating and one that I hope that other other organizations will will pick up on and start utilizing so. So I think that that role of coordination is as opposed to just writing checks i think is a really important one.

Great insight guys. I cannot thank you enough for being part of the show today. I think it's just a fantastic, awesome story. So glad I had a chance to tell a little bit of it. encourage everyone to check out and see all the good work going on there. Sam Ryman, rk mo and Joe Chung from Red Star you guys smashing it up in a good way. Absolutely. Love it. Hey, this is Thank you. Absolutely This is Jonathan Kersting hanging out with Comcast 50 summer stories, everything happening in Pittsburgh tech ecosystem. Thanks for checking it out, everybody.

Transcribed by