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Building smarter so we can breathe easier

A Carolina biomedical engineering professor’s knack for entrepreneurial resourcefulness helped him jumpstart the development of an innovative face mask device – and a new startup company.

A dentist wears the AerFrame over his N95 mask.
Michael Bass performs a routine dental hygiene exam while wearing the AerFrame over his face mask. The AerFrame was designed by Devin Hubbard, a teaching associate professor in the UNC/NC State Joint Department of Biomedical Engineering.(Photo by Mary Lide Parker)

Innovation is fluid, and the art of tapping into the right resources and support at the right time is crucial, particularly during a pandemic. Devin Hubbard, teaching associate professor in the UNC/NC State Joint Department of Biomedical Engineering and lead design engineer at the North Carolina Translational and Clinical Sciences Institute, has perfected the art of using resources offered by UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus innovation network to find quick answers to pressing problems.

In response to the increased need for personal protective equipment during the COVID-19 pandemic, Hubbard and his team launched Aerem Innovations, a technology company designing solutions for health care and commercial applications. The company is producing the AerFrame, a mask frame device designed to improve the comfort and effectiveness of existing face masks.

If not for his strong, diverse connections across the University’s innovation and entrepreneurship network, Hubbard may not have been able to build his company as quickly as he did. He launched Aerem Innovations in July 2020, just a few months after initially exploring his idea for the mask frame in spring 2020.

“Collaboration and access to diverse resources and thinkers is always vital, but it is absolutely necessary… especially when looking to solve a problem that didn’t exist a year ago,” says Hubbard. “The ability to have access to so many diverse resources and connections made this sprint to market possible.”

Connecting across campus to speed innovation

As a professor, researcher and entrepreneur, Hubbard is plugged into the many I&E tools and programs available on campus. When his team was ready to launch Aerem Innovations, his resourceful approach gave him instant access to experts, which led to quick connections and cross-campus collaborations with KickStart Venture Services, Innovate Carolina, the UNC Office of Technology Commercialization, the Carolina Research Ventures Fund, NC State Nonwovens institute, UNC Health, Center for Environmental Medicine and Asthma, the UNC/NC State Joint Department of Biomedical Engineering, and the FastTraCS team at the North Carolina Translational and Clinical Sciences Institute.

Devin Hubbard puts the AerFrame fon his mask.

Devin Hubbard demonstrates the AerFrame prototype. (Photo by NC TraCS)

KickStart Venture Services, a startup services program and accelerator within UNC-Chapel Hill’s Innovate Carolina office, offers a variety of services to faculty-founded ventures based on intellectual property. These include the coaching, advisement and connections it provides during normal periods to pandemic-specific support like helping companies pivot existing life science technologies toward COVID-19, write grants for COVID-related federal grants and plan for future physical space needs.

“I teach in a very entrepreneurial style, and I like to cultivate the entrepreneurial spirit in my classroom,” says Hubbard. “We definitely took advantage of KickStart’s connections. Through the network, we’ve made a lot of great connections that have helped enable our progress to where we are now.”

Aerem Innovations participated in the Venture Catalyst Program, an initiative from Innovate Carolina and KVS that allows leaders of Carolina-affiliated startups, serial entrepreneur coaches and talented graduate students to converge and collaborate. The program includes two connected opportunities. The first is a coaching session module that brings together teams of serial entrepreneur who use pitch-based coaching to provide expert advice, connections and mentorship. The second is a fellows program, which offers educational and experiential learning opportunities to uncover market opportunities and solve business challenges.