How Tech Nerds May Fix L.A.’s Ports (and Save the World)

The neatly dressed crowd that gathered in the Port of Los Angeles board room to talk tech, renewable energy and the environment was a far cry from the burly, rugged males you’d expect working the docks in a Disney movie. These scientists and inventors were flexing brains.

More than 100 people gathered to watch the PortTech Pitch finals, a techie–meets-roustabout melding at which nine companies pitched ideas to resolve pressing issues in Los Angeles, Long Beach and other ports, everything from saving lives in the mounting battle against bacteria to improving military security to finally coming up with a superior solar shower.

Velox Biosystems, the grand prize winner, created technology that monitors and quickly tests bacteria in water. Treatment plants release contaminated water accidentally but generally don't find out about it until the water makes it into reservoirs or the broader environment. Velox's system is intended to alert treatment centers to such tainted water before it reaches the public. 

Each company founder or CEO got eight minutes to argue his or her case, then eight minutes to field questions from a panel of judges assembled by nonprofit PortTech. The judges included investors, venture capitalists and environmental specialists from the local ports.

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“This is not Shark Tank — we’re a kinder, gentler group than that,” said PortTech L.A.’s executive director, Stan Tomsic. The public-private group helps engineers and “problem solvers” turn their ideas into functioning businesses, explained Tomsic, a waterfront tech nerd who could barely contain his excitement when talking about solving the port’s pollution problems. 

Many of the entrepreneurs with whom PortTech works are deep into their careers, having accumulated the experience, contacts and funding to help get projects up and running. 

Among them was Stephen Wyle, whose long science and tech resume includes a stint as CEO of Laserium International, creator of the planetarium laser shows.

But at the pitch session, Wyle was pushing a solar water heater he and his partner developed under a contract with the U.S. Army.

“This business has been a lot of fun for me because I actually get to get my hands dirty,” Wyle said. 

Soldiers need hot water in the field for showers, cooking and washing. But transporting the fuel to heat the water can be extremely dangerous for the soldiers — and costs a lot. The Army is looking for another way — such as his innovative solar heating system, he said.

Wyle's Thermal Storage System has a tracking device that swivels its ray-collecting system around to face the sun, making the device more effective than existing solar water heaters. It also functions well in cold climates, quickly heating up water in conditions that most solar water heaters can't, he said.

Brian McVerry, a 26-year-old Ph.D. student of chemistry and biochemistry at UCLA, scored PortTech’s “Most Innovative Technology” prize for creating Hydrophilix, a liquid coating that can be sprayed on a surface, then “cured” with a UV light to become a shield that stops bacteria from growing on that surface.

Brian McVerry, a UCLA Ph.D. in biochemistry, pitches his Hydrophilix invention to invisibly coat surfaces against antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Brian McVerry, a UCLA Ph.D. in biochemistry, pitches his Hydrophilix invention to invisibly coat surfaces against antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Courtesy of PortTech

He initially designed his otherworldly spray to prevent bacterial buildup on the thin, porous films that are used to help turn wastewater into freshwater, as well as on the thin films used in the desalination process.

While water treatment was McVerry’s starting point for his bacteria-thwarting coating, the entrepreneur is dreaming big. He believes Hydrophilix has the potential to help stop the current disastrous spread of infections in hospitals — by preventing bacterial growth on medical equipment.

The coating could also be used in food and beverage packaging, to keep consumers safe from germs.

As “cheesy” as it sounds, said McVerry, science is his way to make a difference in the world.

“Helping people and saving lives, that’s a huge driver for myself,” he said. “A lot of scientists share the same passion I do.”

It was just a few years ago that McVerry was a political science major at University of California, Santa Barbara, partying too much and ditching a lot of classes. Then he changed course, decided to go premed and began working in a lab.

“I learned by failing, pretty much,” he said.

McVerry ended up landing a fellowship at UCLA, where he developed and tested Hydrophilix.

Now, McVerry and his co-creators are seeking $1.5 million to build a prototype of his spray and do the necessary field testing. They already have an offer on the table, he said.

He won't divulge any details. But with antibiotic-resistant bacteria ravaging hospitals, it's good to know there's a brainy guy tooling around the Los Angeles waterfront, working on a plan to throw a wet blanket on their ever-expanding party. 


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