From the front lines, for the front lines: A pandemic PPE startup

Ethan Lutz was a college student working as an EMT deployed to New York during the COVID-19 crisis; as he watched the city grapple with the PPE shortage, he came up with an idea to make providers safer in the future


Ethan Lutz needed to vent.

After a grueling 17-hour shift, the college junior picked up the phone and called his mom. He described the perilous PPE situation at the time, and expressed his concerns about the safety measures – or lack thereof – due to the supply shortage.

At the time, Lutz was working as a FEMA-deployed EMT in New York City, specifically the Corona neighborhood in Queens, at the height of the city’s pandemic surge in spring of 2020.

Previously on the track for medical school, Penny Wise PPE Protection Founder and CEO Ethan Lutz has since made the decision to stay in emergency medicine – a calling for him since he earned his EMT certification at 18.
Previously on the track for medical school, Penny Wise PPE Protection Founder and CEO Ethan Lutz has since made the decision to stay in emergency medicine – a calling for him since he earned his EMT certification at 18. (Photo/Courtesy of Ethan Lutz)

“It’s not even safe,” he told his mom, referencing the latest guidance at the time for reusing his N95 masks, which instructed the wearer to store it in a brown paper bag – rife for contamination, according to Lutz.

And, as moms are known to do, she supplied his own answer to him: “Well, what about the copper you’ve been talking about? What if you did something like that?”

So, he did.

The Penny Wise PPE Protection CopperClean Bag was created in the middle of the pandemic as a direct response to the needs of those on the front lines, by someone literally on the front lines.

The science behind copper

I spoke with Lutz about the science behind his invention – a PPE storage bag lined with copper, which he called “the oldest germicidal substance really known by humans.” He referenced how ancient fighters would shave bronze off their swords into their wound to sterilize it.

Lutz also cited a 2015 study in which hospital-acquired central line infections were reduced by more than half due to the use of copper on common high-touch surfaces in ICU settings.

The longevity of the effect is what really excites him.

“People say, ‘Oh, but [copper] patinas – it turns green over time.’ That’s great, because it oxidizes and actually makes it more germicidal,” he said. “So, just naturally, over time, this substance becomes more and more effective at what it does.”

Armed with this knowledge – and the help of his mom, who shipped him the materials while he was still in New York – Lutz used copper EMF tape (commonly used on the inside of guitars) and an empty dog treat bag to create a prototype of what he hoped would enable first responders to store their PPE more safely.

“It was this really shiny prototype-looking copper bag, and a bunch of the medics were like, ‘What is that thing on your waist?’” Ethan recalled while laughing. “And I said, ‘It’s my prototype.’”

Photo/Penny Wise PPE Protection

Eureka!

After his prototype proved to be successful, Lutz launched his company, Penny Wise PPE Protection, with the money he earned working in New York, but still needed to finish up his final year of college at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts.  

Returning to campus for his senior year, Lutz seized upon an opportunity to earn even more recognition and capital for his startup, by entering the school’s entrepreneurship contest, Clark University Eureka Competition.

Though not naturally drawn to business, having just launched his own company, Lutz felt compelled to enter the event, almost as a personal challenge.

“I’m a political science major and a student of biochemistry and molecular biology; I really have no experience running a business,” he said. “I thought, ‘I need to learn how to do this,’ and it was great for that.’”

Penny Wise PPE Protection and the CopperClean Bag won first place, taking home the grand prize of $4,000 – which is going straight back into the business, Lutz confirmed, as he experiments with other products, such as a surgical mask made with a copper blend.

“It’s a disposable surgical mask that’s actually infused with copper itself,” he said. “So the mask itself is self-sterilizing and doesn’t pose any danger to the user because it’s integral to the non-woven fabric itself.”

The design is part of a submission Lutz’s company made to the Mask Innovation Challenge: Building Tomorrow’s Mask, a contest from BARDA DRIVe in partnership with NIOSH to help design a better mask for the general population.

“For the average person, it’s just shove-in-your-pocket and go,” he said, “and because it’s impregnated with copper itself, it’s self-sterilizing all the time.”

Penny Wise PPE Protection – a nod to the coin and the adage, “penny wise, not pound foolish” – has a lot of room for growth, Lutz says. He talks about further expanding into the PPE market, government contracting and the mass copper market.

But first, graduation

For the recent graduate, his future looks bright, as well.

“I’m so glad to be done,” he said, relieved. “College was great, it was a formative experience, I learned a lot, but frankly, I feel that most of my professional growth and most of the areas in which I feel like I’ve really grown is in the back of the ambulance.”

Previously on the track for medical school, Lutz has since made the decision to stay in emergency medicine – a calling for him since he earned his EMT certification at 18.

“It’s interesting that over the course of my college career, I’m now ready to leave college, but honestly to go back to something I’ve been doing since the start of it.”

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