Justin Li’s initial vision was to sell his products to military and law enforcement officers. Soon after he started building his company, he and his business partners expanded their target market to include athletes, particularly runners and golfers.
Now they have a new user in mind: Health-care workers battling Ebola.
“It’s certainly not something we had originally thought of, but it turns out we’re pretty well suited to help in that area, said Li, one of the founders of Qore Performance, a technology-driven apparel start-up based in Fairfax.
Qore’s products — a line of wearable heating and cooling packs — were recently identified by the U.S. Agency for International Development for potential use in new protective suits for health-care workers treating Ebola in West Africa. Donning heavy, air-tight suits and working in some of most hot and humid areas of the world, physicians and nurses are generally limited to about 30 or 40 minutes of work at a time, posing significant staffing challenges as health officials look to halt the outbreak.
In response, White House and USAID officials started an initiative called Ebola Grand Challenge for Development, calling on innovators and technology companies to propose solutions, and offering up $5 million in grants to inventions that showed the most promise. And that’s how they found Qore.
“We actually heard about the challenge on Twitter,” Li recalled. “We started reading about it online, and we were all like, ‘Wow, this is basically written for our product. We need to get involved.’”
Officially founded this spring after two years of experimenting, Qore traces its roots to Li’s stint as a volunteer deputy sheriff reserve in California, during which he was dropped (often via helicopter) into what he describes as “extremely harsh and austere environments” on search-and-rescue missions. It was during one such mission in high-altitude terrain, where the temperature fluctuated more than 50 degrees daily, that he started mulling new ways to heat and cool the body.
“I remembered our basic first-aid training, where we learned to treat heat stroke or hypothermia by putting ice packs or heat packs on the pulse points, where the blood runs close to the surface,” he said. “If it worked in a clinical sense, building packs into those areas on apparel seemed like a reasonable approach.”
Surely, he thought, a company already sold such products. So, he searched online.
“Nobody did, so I set out to build it myself,” Li said.
A George Washington University graduate, Li teamed with a friend in Fairfax and elected to move back to the East Coast to start building the company. Qore’s product line now includes compression shorts and bicep sleeves with small pockets strategically placed over some of the body’s pulse points. The apparel comes packaged with the company’s patent-pending cooling packs, which contain a substance with a melting point around 58 degrees, instead of water’s 32-degree threshold.
Consequently, the packs are designed to gently cool the body over several hours and avoid the rather uncomfortable feeling of placing ice directly on the skin.
So far, Qore has been marketing the products mostly to athletes and emergency response teams, but Li said he and co-founder J.D. Willcox are particularly excited about the chance to support the country’s fight against Ebola.
“It’s cool to find another use, especially something like this,” Li said. “This is what we really wanted to do with our careers, to work on something where we could have a positive impact in a larger way. It’s an exciting opportunity.”
After submitting some initial information online and then pitching to a panel of judges from USAID and the Defense Department, Qore was notified last month that it was one of a few teams selected for the final round of the Grand Challenge competition. Li and Willcox recently submitted a formal concept paper outlining their plans. And while it’s unclear exactly when they will find out whether they’ll receive a portion of the $5 million grant or when testing would begin, USAID officials have said they hope to begin testing ideas “in a matter of weeks.”
In the meantime, the competition is already paying dividends for Qore. Li and company have recently been contacted by several Fortune 500 companies about potential partnership opportunities. In addition, a number of angel investors and venture capital groups have come calling — a welcome development for an upstart that just last month started pursuing and initial round of seed funding.