AeroMed, Inc. of Amsterdam, New York makes equipment for the control of airborne infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and COVID-19. Bill Palmer, the company’s founder, has designed numerous products that use either high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters or germicidal ultraviolet light (GUV). Today, AeroMed supplies upper-room GUV systems, HEPA air purification equipment, aerosol treatment chambers, and room pressure monitors. A global business, the Mohawk Valley manufacturer has partners in India and Africa with installed systems in Vietnam, Pakistan, and many other countries.
Before COVID-19, AeroMed’s equipment was used mainly in the fight against tuberculosis (TB), an airborne infectious disease that is rare in the United States but that kills thousands of people a day around the world. COVID-19 is viral rather than bacterial, but the TB bacterium is like the COVID-19 virus in that both microorganisms are spread when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Moreover, some people who are infected with TB or COVID-19 remain asymptomatic – meaning that they do not display symptoms. U.S. hospitals see relatively few TB patients, but COVID-19’s burden on healthcare everywhere is well-known.
When FuzeHub learned that AeroMed was pivoting during the COVID-19 pandemic, we invited Bill Palmer to join us for a podcast. Bill is currently working 15-hour days, but graciously took the time to talk to us about how his New York State manufacturing company is meeting demand and making a difference.
Steve Melito: Hey. Welcome to New York State Manufacturing Now, the podcast that’s powered by FuzeHub and is all about manufacturing across New York State. I’m your host, Steve Melito. I’m a solutions provider for FuzeHub, and understatement of the year, we live in interesting times, right? It’s COVID- 19 every day all the time. One of the things we’d like to do on the podcast is to talk to some companies that are pivoting their strategies, that are adapting, and some companies that have some pretty unique and amazing technologies. So, today, we’re very lucky to have Bill Palmer from Aeromed. Bill, welcome to New York State Manufacturing Now.
Bill Palmer: Thanks, Steve. I appreciate you having me on.
Steve Melito: Listen, tell us a little bit about your company and the story. We won’t even talk about COVID-19 yet, but what were you doing before this all struck?
Bill Palmer: A lot of the same things. Aeromed had, it’s starts as a environmental air purification company in the early 1990s, late 1980s. In the early 1990s, there was a outbreak of tuberculosis in the US and a lot of the hospitals were searching for answers. How do we protect our staff from tuberculosis, infection? How do we protect other patients and visitors? And we were among the first people to become involved in designing equipment specifically for environmental infection control. Since 1992, that has been the sole niche that Aeromed has resided within. We started actually manufacturing our own equipment for these needs in the mid to late ’90s, and we have been actively pursuing that in the US. But after that initial outbreak, the incidents of TB dramatically was reduced because all of the things that the medical industry did, including what we were doing, worked. As that started to decline, we started to look internationally to help healthcare facilities in other countries battle airborne infectious diseases with things like HEPA, air purification equipment, creating negative pressure isolation rooms, and more recently using upper room germicidal ultraviolet lights. So, we’ve been kind of doing missionary work, if you could say that, for air purification, for keeping people safe from airborne infections. So, it’s been sort of a mixed bag because when things are well for the world, things aren’t so busy at Aeromed. But at times like now when people are looking for answers and how to better protect their staff within a healthcare facility, we are very well situated to help.
Steve Melito: That’s great. Now, Bill, I’ve been to your facility once before, I believe you’re in Amsterdam, right? Do I have that right?
Bill Palmer: That is correct.
Steve Melito: Okay. I’ve been able to see some of the equipment that you build. Can you describe what it’s like, sort of like a chamber of sorts?
Bill Palmer: So, we actually have a wide variety of equipment that we build. We have one device that is a chamber that patients actually sit inside of. There are certain processes, diagnostic processes that cause the patient to cough and could create an infectious aerosol that could infect healthcare workers in the room. So, we actually build a chamber that the patient sits on during the testing process, and the air from that chamber is exhausted through a special HEPA filter and then returned back into the room to make sure that the cough from that patient doesn’t infect the healthcare worker that is overseeing the test. We’re actually the only company in the US that makes a chamber like this. It’s a fairly small niche, but it is the one thing that we do that no one else here does. But we also make HEPA filtration equipment. We have portable equipment that you may roll into a patient room and use to recirculate the air within that space. When you recirculate the air within a space, you’re reducing the concentration of airborne bacteria and viruses that may be causing infection to other people within those spaces. So, we have portable equipment for that. We have HEPA filtration, air purifiers that mount into the ceiling, and you use those devices to filter the air that’s leaving the room so that it again reduces the likelihood of infecting people in other spaces. But it also creates a directional flow of air into the room so that if there is an infected patient inside of that room, the air from that room won’t leave that space and infect other people in the hospital.
Steve Melito: Bill, would it be overkill to use a technology like that in a manufacturing facility? I mean, at a time like this, when people are so concerned about COVID- 19 infection, could you hypothetically mount this in the production area so that the air’s exhausted and the folks in the front office don’t have any chance?
Bill Palmer: So, the concepts can be applied to just about any setting, but it’s difficult in a large setting like a manufacturing facility to apply them cost effectively and we have a third product line that we manufacture called Germicidal Ultraviolet lights. And UV is essentially bad for us. It’s bad for your eyes, it’s bad for your skin, but we are able to introduce ultraviolet lights into the upper part of a room where, not in the occupied space where we are. As air mixes within those spaces, the UV light is very effective at killing viruses and bacteria that reside in the air. I first started using this technology… I had made some visits, the hospitals in China and South Korea and other parts of the world where I was just amazed at the large number of patients with airborne infectious diseases were. I realized that we could not use the same technology, that the filtration and the ventilation technology that we use at home wouldn’t be cost effective in those settings. So, we embarked on using and manufacturing these ultraviolet lights, which are a technology that’s recommended by the US CDC. It’s recommended by the WHO. These large organizations have verified that it’s effective in those healthcare settings for killing airborne bacteria such as tuberculosis. What’s nice about them is that you can apply them to larger spaces, very cost effectively, but with a very similar or equivalent effectiveness.
So, yes, that was a long way around to getting to say yes.
Steve Melito: I have to think it’s probably a lot labor intensive than the so- called deep cleaning too, because there’s no chemicals?
Bill Palmer: That is correct. So, it’s very simple to implement and once it’s on, there’s really nothing that the user in the space has to do. We have to be very careful how we set up the equipment so that we are making sure that the UV is going where we want it and that it’s not getting into the occupied space. But in addition to the airborne UV, we are also introducing some UV lights that are utilized for surface disinfection and these lights can only be used when the room is not occupied. One of the issues with COVID- 19 is that it’s not only spread through the air, it’s also spread through contact. It’s spread through large droplets. So, when we use air purifiers in upper room UV, we are attacking one of the methods of transmission of the disease. So, it’s also important to disinfect surfaces. Again, you mentioned labor intensive. It is very labor intensive to clean surfaces, but that needs to be done. But as with anything that involves people doing the work, you have varying degrees of success. Some people are going to be more thorough cleaners and some are going to miss spots. Well, we have a system that can be used to radiate the surfaces within a space when they are unoccupied and these systems are permanently mounted and they’re indiscriminate and they’re not going to clean better one day than the next. They’re not going to miss a spot today and hit that same spot tomorrow. They’re going to be set up and designed to hit the majority of the spots within the room. Again, there’s nothing that’s going to eliminate risk, but all of these things that we work with are designed to reduce risk.
Steve Melito: So, you’ve got a couple of different product lines, you’re getting a lot of interest. I was lucky to get you to come on the podcast because you said your phone is ringing off the hook and you’re on the phone 12 hours a day. Who are you talking to and what are you talking to them about? What are they interested in?
Bill Palmer: Well, every time I think I figure out the answer to that question, it’s different a week later. So, it’s sort of a moving target based on the types of facilities. Mostly we’re talking to healthcare facilities, hospitals, clinics, nursing homes, things like that and we are talking to people throughout the United States. We’re doing a lot of work right now in Mexico. We’re preparing to do a lot of work in South Africa and in India. These are all places where we’ve been planting seeds for quite some time. But in healthcare facilities, they may be concerned in creating additional capacity for isolation rooms. So, an isolation room is, it’s called a negative pressure room. By negative pressure, that’s where they are creating this direction of airflow into the space that prevents the contaminated air in that space from getting out of that room. So, those types of people are looking for our HEPA filter exhaust systems. Other people are looking at how do I control the… Or, not control as much as reduce the level of airborne concentration of viruses in a congregate setting. So, if you have a urgent care center and you have 50 people that are sitting there, we’ve all waited in either an ER waiting area or an urgent care waiting area for a few hours with whatever our issues are and you’re being exposed to whatever airborne germs other people who are sharing that space with you have. So, these are larger areas and people in those types of systems… With those types of issues are looking for ultraviolet lights where you can inexpensively treat large areas and reduce the risk there. So, other places, we’re working with a large hospital in New York City that wants to put our HEPA filtration systems in all of their operating rooms. So, really each day seems to bring a new challenge. The day usually starts out with hospital calls at 6: 00 in the morning, and it continues throughout the evening. Then we start getting calls from other countries in the evening through the night. So, I’m usually on the phone till midnight or 1: 00 in the morning and starting all over again at 6: 00.
Steve Melito: Amazing. Now, how do these folks find you? And I’ll explain that question by saying, I’ve talked to a lot of companies who want to know where the demand for their products is or where the opportunities are. How do these hospitals find you? Is it a web search? Is it word of mouth through the medical community?
Bill Palmer: Well, fortunately we’ve been doing this in healthcare for quite some time. So, the majority of the people who are coming to us right now are ones that we have been reaching out to either for years and working with them already, or ones that, as I mentioned, we are doing missionary work. We’re out there kind of preaching the word of what people need to do to protect themselves in these settings. So, we’ve been sewing a lot of seeds for the last few years. So, a lot of that is now coming to harvest but people are also finding us through our Aeromed. com website. So, some of it’s word of mouth, some of it’s website, some of it’s just past relationships.
Steve Melito: How about the manufacturing piece and the production? Do you have all the space that you need and all of the workforce that you require?
Bill Palmer: Well, that certainly was one of our biggest challenges. We’ve had a small amount of steady business for a number of years, and we have a 13, 000 square foot warehouse assembly facility in Amsterdam. Because this was ramping up so fast, this was not something that ramped up over months or years. This was something that ramped up over days, and we found ourselves in a very difficult situation where we had to make essentially a year’s worth of our equipment in a matter of weeks. While I think we could have done it in our current facility, the amount of juggling that we would had to have done to achieve that and the emotional stress that it would’ve caused us, I think would’ve been exorbitant. So, what we decided to do instead was to partner with one of our existing vendors, Metal Solutions in Utica. They had excess capacity of personnel, of equipment and of space that we did not have, and they were able to work with us. Kevin Loveless, our general manager, was able to train them on how to build our equipment. So, that is an ongoing process. That is not a simple process, and we are learning just how difficult it’s been, but by having this partnership and sharing our capabilities, we have been able to meet needs in a timeframe that would’ve been unachievable for us otherwise.
Steve Melito: So, Metal Solutions is in Utica, right?
Bill Palmer: That is correct.
Steve Melito: Okay, good. We’re hoping to have Joe Cattadoris on the podcast as well, so I’ll be sure to ask him about his experience. It’s great to see that the opportunity is not just at your own company in the Mohawk Valley, but there’s a wider application for it. It’s great.
Bill Palmer: Well, and it really has been something that is helping multiple companies. We do a lot of work with Metal Solutions. They were already our metal supplier. We’re working with Custom Clad out of Canajoharie. They do all of our powder coating for us. There’s a number of local facilities that are participating in this and partnering with us. So, it’s really exciting that we’re helping meet a need locally, domestically, and internationally. But we’re also helping with, during a time when not everyone has a job, we’re helping to create some jobs here locally. That’s just been super exciting for us to feel like a contributor doing during a difficult time.
Steve Melito: It’s an amazing thing. So, it seems that things change every day. It’s a fast paced world. Where do you think Aeromed will be in a couple of years? Can you hazard a guess or is it too hard to do?
Bill Palmer: I’m sure that no matter what guess I hazard, I’ll be wrong to a degree, but I could certainly say that this has been a watershed event, that this is the kind of event that will change the medical industry, it will change our society, it will change our industry. There are very few things that come along that will have changes that are as deep as these changes will be for Aeromed. It really focuses people at all levels on the services and the products that we offer. One of the things before, it was really getting hard to convince people that we had a need to protect ourselves from airborne infections. Even though in the back of their mind, people are thinking, ” I’m afraid to go to the hospital. I don’t want to go to the hospital and get sick.” It was something they thought, but it was never something they acted upon. But now the level of awareness is so heightened and the depth of understanding is so tremendous. Even when I go to the bank, people are asking me about the right way to wear a respirator or what is the right face mask or respirator to be wearing? What are the size of the particles that we’re worried about? All of these questions that before none of them would’ve even known what to ask. I got my haircut a month ago, and we are having this long conversation about airborne infection control. It’s on the minds of everyone. So, we have already done more business in the first four months of this year. We’ve come close to doubling the business that we did in all of last year. We believe that we will probably end up somewhere as around four to 500% of our volume of business this year over last and I don’t think that this is going to be a flash in the pan for us because this is a change in the way we do things for which we are well situated to take advantage of and help people with.
Steve Melito: It’s an amazing story. Bill Palmer from Aeromed. Thanks so much for being on New York State Manufacturing Now. I can keep on talking to you for hours, but I know you have to get back to work, and we’re going to let you do just that. It’s a about saving lives, and you’re doing some great stuff. So, thank you for taking the time to speak with us today.
Bill Palmer: Thanks for your time too, Steve. Have a wonderful day.
Steve Melito: You bet. So, on behalf of New York State Manufacturing Now, wherever you’re listening across New York State, please know that FuzeHub, the Statewide Manufacturing Extension Partnership Center, is open 24 hours a day, even during COVID-19 and what I mean by that is if you go to our website at Fuzehub. com, you can take a look at it, you can see who we are, what we do, the programming that is available, albeit in a virtual sense. If you’re a manufacturer that has a business or technical need, if you need some help, FuzeHub is here. We work with all of our local or regional MEP centers across New York State and lots of other great assets. So, reach out to us. The way to do that, go to, again, go to FuzeHub. com, look for the solutions program link, and there’s a form for ask a manufacturing expert. I’ll probably get to be the first person you’ll talk to and I’ll get you to that expert. So, again, thanks for listening to New York State Manufacturing Now. Signing off.