North Adams — Anyone with glasses these days knows what it feels like to put on a mask and immediately lose your entire field of vision to fog.
That is a problem that Western Massachusetts-based Kyttarinic Technologies wants to solve.
“A lot of people had this problem before COVID, in environments like hospitals, manufacturing,” said James Capistran, one of the company’s founders. “In the medical profession, they can’t take the glasses or face shield off, so, they’re stuck with it.”
There already are dozens of products to stop fogging, including human spit. But, Capistran and his co-founder, Kenneth Carter, believe that they have built a new, long-lasting and environmentally friendly way to solve the problem, by using a cellulose-based coating to keep fog from building up on surfaces like eyeglasses, masks and goggles, without irritating the user’s eyes.
The pair started the company more than a year ago but shifted their focus to hospital workers when the pandemic struck, and created a test product for two Western Massachusetts hospitals. Now, they are hoping to secure the money they need to finalize and manufacture that product, through a competition run by North Adams-based small-business accelerator Lever.
Among the four finalists competing for $25,000 in Lever’s Berkshire Manufacturing Innovation Challenge, Amherst-based Kyttarinic is the only Western Massachusetts venture.
“We’re trying to get into manufacturing,” Capistran said. “The problem with a startup, as you may know, is, we don’t have much money.”
In its quest to get off the ground, the company has leaned on the Berkshires for support. In addition to joining the Lever investor network through the startup competition, Kyttarinic has used Lee-based Boyd Technologies to manufacture an early version of its pilot product — Fogkicker.
Fogkicker originated in Carter’s research as a professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
While working with a student on cellulosic materials, Carter developed a coating that could be applied to goggles or other eyewear to prevent fogging. Cellulose, the basic structural component of plant cell walls, is best known as a primary ingredient in paper, though its derivatives can be found in everything from plastic to adhesives to explosives.
In Kyttarinic’s product, nanocellulose particles — tiny cellulosic materials — form a thin, transparent layer over glass, or other eyewear material. The nanocellulose coating prevents water vapor from condensing on the surface of the glass.
“It prevents water from beading up and forming little droplets,” Capistran said. “Which is what fog is.”
Because Fogkicker is made out of cellulose rather than silicone- or oil-based surfactants, Capistran believes that it provides a better alternative than similar products on the market.
“The nanocellulose biodegrades, so it’s good for environment,” he said. “We’re working with Boyd [Technologies] to try to identify packaging that’s as green as possible.”
The company tested out a number of ways to get the product on surfaces, from spray bottles to highlighter pens, and eventually settled on wipes.
In a pilot program launched late last year, 40 health care workers at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield and Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton tried out the wipes. Capistran says the feedback was almost entirely positive.
“One nurse wrote back that it completely changed her life at work,” he said. “She used to have to twist the ear straps on the mask so it would cling to her face more tightly, and it was giving her headaches. This made the whole problem go away.”
Fogkicker failed in just once instance, Capistran added, when the wipes came out dry.
“They want more,” he said. “I don’t have any more!”
One respondent said the product lasted two weeks, which Capistran celebrated, though the company’s goal now is for the product to function reliably, across all uses, for one day of work.
Eventually, Capistran said, Kyttarinic wants to pair with a lens company to test out the product on different types of reading and prescription glasses. In a few years, he hopes Kyttarinic can expand its cellulosic products to include a device that removes carbon dioxide from the air in an enclosed space.
For now, the company is working through the basics, and the Lever competition has given Capistran motivation to check off the boxes.
“When you’re in a challenge like this, there’s a lot of things they make you do, like interview your customers and build a market plan,” Capistran said. “Everything I would have had to do anyway, so, it really helps me.”
The best part of working with Lever, though, is the kind of investors Capistran expects the incubator will connect him to — people who want him to keep his company in Western Massachusetts.
As former head of the Innovation Institute at the University of Massachusetts, Capistran is familiar with the impulse to move promising companies to the Boston area.
“People from Boston would invest in a company that was invented out here in Amherst, and they’d just pull it back,” he said. “The technologies they invented here could provide great jobs, but they just were pulled back to the East.”
For now, that kind of move is off the table for Kyttarinic. Capistran, once a board member for the Berkshire Innovation Center, says he has too many connections to the western part of the state to let his location go to waste.
“I’m trying to keep it out here, to work with manufacturers that I’ve known for years,” he said. “I believe in Western Mass. One thing I’m going to say to any investor is, ‘You gotta promise we’ll keep it here.’”