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Helix 51 incubator company Inspirotec announced in March that its commercially available air sampling device (AirAnswers™) has the capability to detect viruses in the air, including COVID-19. The company and its research partner University of Chicago are seeking federal approval for an expanded study to test and leverage the technology, which could help anticipate and prevent public exposure to the virus.

Helix 51 incubator company Inspirotec Inc. announced in early March that its patented commercial air sampling device can detect viruses in the air, including COVID-19. The same AirAnswers platform technology is available for airborne allergens, bacteria and other airborne viruses. All sample testing takes place in Inspirotec’s biological-rated labs located inside Helix 51.

Inspirotec, one of the first companies to join RFU’s incubator, recently completed a proof of principle study in collaboration with the University of Chicago Medical Center in which its AirAnswers™ device sampled air inside a COVID unit of the hospital, detecting airborne virus.

Co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer Julian Gordon, PhD, who launched the company in 2013, said the technology could pave the way for a new field of viral tracking, early warning and remediation.

“Contact tracing is a proven tactic in fighting pandemics,” Dr. Gordon said. “But we can refine the process by determining whether contacts are themselves emitting viruses into the environment before any symptoms appear, and follow up further the environments of individuals who have been exposed. This principle could be used to visualize any epidemic, like tracking a weather system — track how it moves geographically or through a population.”

The goal is to “anticipate and minimize public exposure in the current pandemic as well as future epidemics;” Dr. Gordon added.

The company originally showed the feasibility of measuring airborne viruses in a controlled environment chamber through a collaboration with the U.S. Army at its Edgewood Chemical Biological Center — the nation’s principal research and developmental resource for non-medical chemical and biological defense. It has shown that its technology is capable of measurement of a wide variety of biological agents, including allergens and viruses across many different environments, whether in homes, businesses or institutions.

“The $10 trillion question that underlies the potential global impact of AirAnswers is how much of the virus do you have to inhale to get infected,” said Tom Brya, the company’s president and CEO. “I’ve seen some literature that suggests hundreds of contacts. But we’re measuring very fine particles of allergens and COVID that are inhaled deeply into the lungs and are small enough to pass into the blood. The fine particles we detect and quantify in the air can create the most harmful allergic reactions and overwhelm the inflammatory defense system, creating a cytokine storm throughout the body. The same thing happens with air pollution, allergies and asthma, which some of the literature shows correlates to heart disease, stroke and, more disturbingly, Alzheimer’s and other dementias.”

We will establish a new standard in health care
Julian Gordon, PhD Co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer, Inspirotec

Inspirotec and the University of Chicago will jointly pursue NIH funding for a planned study to investigate such critical data. Long-term studies of the company’s allergen-measuring system and remediation support services are underway with Argonne National Laboratory and UC’s Chicago Multiethnic Prevention and Surveillance Study (COMPASS), which looks at impacts on the health of the city’s residents from factors like pollution. A recent Harvard University study revealed a link between long-term exposure to air pollution and higher COVID-19 death rates.

“If we can understand what’s in the environment and look for correlation with health status, we can get a better idea of what we can do to remediate the situation,” Dr. Gordon said. “We will establish a new standard in health care.”

Inspirotec’s work to detect COVID-19 and other airborne diseases, allergens and pollutants is just one example of what’s possible at RFU’s Helix 51, which provides a supportive environment, including meeting, office and wet lab space for companies working to develop treatments for disease and innovations in healthcare delivery. All member companies are currently undertaking COVID–related research.

“It’s a transformational time for us,” Mr. Brya said. “We have patented technology and the ability to help not only allergy and asthma sufferers, but to be the first line of defense in terms of getting back to a new normal in the time of COVID.”

Summer Undergraduate/High School Research Programs 2012–2019
Year DePaul Lake Forest INSPIRE Undergrad/ High School Volunteers TOTALS
2012 9 9 7 18 43
2013 12 13 10 23 58
2014 14 15 14 23 66
2015 11 18 13 25 67
2016 9 20 15 35 79
2017 11 19 18 37 85
2018 9 19 18 40 86
2019 8 20 17 39 84

Helix 51 Member Companies

Company Primary Focus, all pursuing COVID-19–related projects
Inspirotec Allergen/Pathogen detection in homes/offices 
BLR Bio Fibrotic disease including cancer, NASH, scleroderma
Cogent Lab Analytical CRO for CBD
SmartStable Isotopes Contract R&D for isotopes for drugs and diagnostics

Helix 51 Orbit Companies

Company Focus
NeuroLucent (B. Stutzmann) Alzheimer’s disease/Traumatic brain injury
Resuscitation Therapeutics* (R. Gazmuri) Cardiac arrest
Harbor Biotechnology (D. Peterson) Stroke
Leish Vac (K.P. Chang) Cancer and infectious disease vax
TargaCell* Cardiac stem cell delivery for myocardial infarction *Covid-related projects underway

Member Training and Education

  • Business skills: ComOps, Marketing, Project Management
  • Leadership — Pitch Training
  • Business Plan Development and Competitions
  • Elevator Pitches
  • Financing: Grant Workshops and Consulting, dilutive and non-dilutive
  • Transactions: IP and Deal-making

Key Industry and Supporting Partners

  • Baxter
  • Horizon Therapeutics
  • AbbVie

Research Publications and Extramural Funding

Visit our 2020 list of Publications and Extramural Funding

Rosalind Franklin University's more than 50 researchers are nationally recognized for their work in basic and clinical sciences. They are making important contributions to the scientific literature in major disease-related research areas, including neuroscience, neurodegenerative disease, proteomics, diabetes and cancer.

Our research funding is substantial, despite an increasingly competitive grant environment.