Combi-Ventilate mechatronic and software engineer Antonio Patacho and Combi-lift co founder Martin McVicar.

Copper-fastened for success

EXCLUSIVE CombiLift makes another Coronavirus breakthrough

Local entrepreneur Martin McVicar is a man unwilling to sit upon his laurels.

Not content with solving one pandemic problem with the launch of Combi-Ventilate, an innovative splitting device for hospital ventilators, he’s now poised to launch Copper-Cover - a new venture designed to help combat the further spread of COVID-19.

Copper-Cover applies antimicrobial copper-alloy to regularly used home and workplace surfaces and touch points.

Door handles, rails, light-switches, sink taps and even toilet handles have already been successfully treated at more than half a dozen schools, crèches and businesses in the Monaghan area.

Similar to Combi-Ventilate, Martin never set out to reinvent the wheel, instead preferring to explore ways to make it turn differently.

The efficacy of copper, an essential trace element, but for its antimicrobial properties, dates back to ancient times. Its oldest recorded medical use is mentioned in the Smith Papyrus, and in more recent decades, has been the subject of over 600,000 peer reviewed papers published in English. That number spikes to two million if Spanish, German and French academic validations are included.

For more scientific spin, when a pathogen lands on copper, ions blast the microbe at a rate that accelerates deterioration, especially on dry surfaces.

“On stainless steel most viruses will last for two or three days, whereas on copper, they’ll last two or three minutes at most,” explains Martin.

Copper-Cover, which registered its trading name only at the end of May, was set up by Martin alongside copper and silver ionization expert Michael McGrath.

Martin enthuses that his collaborator Michael “lives and breathes” copper. Not literally, obviously, but as if to prove the point further, Martin shows his phone where Michael’s number is saved under the name ‘Mike Copper’.

“After Covid as a business owner I wanted to put any measure possible in place to help reduce the possibility of the virus being transferred. So we looked at everything, and one was the process of applying copper onto handles and other surfaces. We ended with a process of spraying so that it builds a layer of copper and has a microbial effect still,” he says, speaking exclusively to The Anglo-Celt last week.

The new €50 million 100-acre Combi-lift factory in Monaghan was among the first locations where Copper-Cover spraying system was tested.

It is blasted using a compressed air source equipped with rocket-nozzle onto the specified surface at speed of Mach 1.5 (3,600mph) using patent-pending technology.

The concept is one originally considered by the Soviets in their space programme in the 1980s.

The result is a sheen layer, just 800 microns deep, so thin it’s invisible to the human eye except for colour.

Martin also notes the reason why copper touch surfaces aren’t standard simply boils down to cost.

The Copper-Cover spray however is both adaptable and cost-effective. It also forms a life-long bond with the chosen surface that is stronger than a weld.

Independent from Combi-lift and Combi-Ventilate, uniquely Copper-Cover will be a mobile business, capable of travelling to sites across the country as requested. A fleet is currently being commissioned, to be expanded as the Copper-Cover business grows, and Martin hopes the new enterprise will prove popular not just in Ireland but the UK as well.

When first encountered, Galway-native Michael is suited in full protective gear and mask and is in the process of copper-blasting door handles to be fitted back at another school.

“Current studies show we’ll get a significant reduction in viruses on copper surfaces within four minutes. To put that into perspective, alcohol based sanitisers take four minutes. It’s a continuous disinfectant too, so as long as it’s on the surface, it’s always working,” expounds Martin’s newest business partner.

“The brilliant thing about copper as a material too is that it’s reusable. Over 80 per cent of the copper ever mined is still in use today. So it’s recycled and reused, it’s very easy to refine, and has been used and reused since the bronze age.”

In a meeting room overlooking a hive of activity on the main manufacturing floor at Combi-lift’s HQ, Martin sits back and laughs.

The assertion has been put to him that he truly “enjoys” the yearning for innovation, constantly striving to improve and find anew.

“I’m in hobby thinking mode I suppose you could say,” regards Martin, adjusting the glasses on his nose. “I’ll admit I do get a bit of a kick out of it.”

Despite the downturn in some sectors, Combi-lift is as busy as ever. Demand is high for the unique forklift equipment they manufacture and the space-saving solutions they facilitate- either allowing more production space, or greater social distancing on factory floors.

Had Covid-19 never existed, Martin accepts he might never have diversified so broadly.

Still, he states: “There’s nothing perfect. There are so many possibilities no matter what we’re making, and I suppose, if there’s a solution, if it’s cost effective, and it’s solving a problem, that’s what really makes me tick. That’s very much engrained too in the Combi-lift DNA.”

A short distance from the meeting room, in a glass-boxed side office, is mechatronic and software engineer Antonio Patacho. He’s sitting, hunched over and deep in process of toying with a breaker component. The soundtrack to the workspace is a ventilator beeping in the corner, attached to two Combi-Ventilate units, mechanically inflating bags attached to breathing tubes with gentle hushes of air.

Antonio, along with Martin, Combilift co-founder Robert Moffett, and Mark Whyte, head of Research and Development, made up part of the team that came up with how to do more with the highly-technical ventilator.

Antonio is proud of the invention, first unveiled to the public back in late April.

It took just five weeks, often working through the night, before the team reached a major breakthrough. To date there have been five separate evolutions of the Combi-Ventilate concept, each with various specific tweaks, or small to even larger improvements.

A unit is currently undergoing laboratory tests with Ger Curley, Professor of Anaesthesia and Critical Care at Royal College of Surgeons in Beaumont hospital. Antonio has been present for much of the testing.

Another unit is being tested at Tallaght, and a white paper covering in detail the success of the Combi-Ventilate is soon ready for publication.

Portuguese-national Antonio won’t say much, but acknowledges the patient-saving outcomes have been “positive”.

“The abstract [report] was already submitted and now the full results are almost ready. It’s very positive, yes,” he says, nodding.

In true altruistic fashion the Combi-Ventilate was designed as not-fot-profit, with only the unique feature controlling tidal flow patented by the firm, has seen production start around the world - mostly in developing countries.

In cash terms, a ventilator that could cost a hospital US$20,000. The cost of manufacturing a Combi-Ventilate, depending on country, is US$5,000 or less, thus doubling the capacity of even the most basic ventilator unit without the additional cost.

Most recently Combi-lift began working with the Brazil Manufacturing Association, and has had engagements with others in countries such as Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, India, UAE, Kenya, Kuwait, Nigeria, South Africa, Ecuador, Peru and Chile.

“When all this started, everyone felt the need to help somehow. This is what we as Combi-lift were able to do, by validating a concept that was set aside by the medical area. What’s important to remember is that this is a viable innovation, particularly in developing countries, even if Covid never happened. It’s rewarding,” says Antonio, who remains heavily involved in fine-tuning the schematics so they are universially translatable.

The HSE had asked Combi-lift among others to look at how to manufacture ventilators. But instead the Monaghan company came up with a much simpler solution- turning one existing ventilator into four.

In a world still struggling with Covid, Martin adds of Combi-Ventilate, that it would have been “wrong” were profit the company’s only goal.

They looked at manufacturing hospital beds too, and given their globally recognised engineering prowess, even put that to good use building ventilator trolleys.

But when pressed on what other medical fields the Combi-lift is now exploring, Martin is tight-lipped.

“I couldn’t tell you that, not now,” he chuckles. “But I think I said at the time, in the medium term, we’ll look at other ways to innovate within the medical sector. That is something still waiting to happen, definitely.”

A mark of how far the company has come is that 4.10pm last Thursday, Martin and selected members of his design and innovation team were scheduled to speak via video link with a delegation from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

It’s the kind of call generally preserved for high-ranking civil servants or heads of State.

The team of medical experts based out of Geneva, Switzerland were interested in picking Combi-lift’s collective brain as to where else the company’s creative urge can be applied. Combi-Ventilate is of course high on the agenda for discussion.

“You build up certain capabilities in a field, and if there are gaps there are opportunities, why not?” states Martin. “I’ve full confidence the staff here are up to meeting those challenges. [The call] has to do with the Combi-Ventilate, but when you’re speaking with people the likes of the WHO, you never know where that can lead. It’s to learn from them as well, what challenges around Covid-19 they’re seeing and facing, and what we can do to help. We’ll see where we go from there.”