‘Catching the virus, dead or alive’ - an alumna story of Eliane Khoury
Preventing hospital infections through air purification; that has been driving Eliane Khoury ever since she finished her electrostatic research at Delft University. Eliane thinks that the Netherlands in particular has much to gain from prevention.What if you had been working on an air purification system specifically targeted at viruses for the last fifteen years? Eliane Khoury finds herself in the crazy situation that three quarters of her staff are now working at home, but the demand for her air purifying-invention has skyrocketed. Since the corona outbreak, her company VFA Solutions (Virus Free Air) suddenly tapped into a huge new market. Eliane: “It’s both cynical and great at the same time.”Hooked to filtrationFrom the time Eliane left Israel to study at Delft University of Technology onwards, she has been hooked to the concept of electrostatic filtration and ionisation. Electrostatic air filters differ from other filters by using electricity to charge and catch (fine)dust, pollen, microbes, ultrafine particles (UFP’s) and other airborne particles to which viruses can cling. “After electrocution the particles are caught in a special mechanical filter. Alive or dead, we always catch the virus”, Eliane explains. “Our air purifiers can clean air that’s recirculated in a building, but it can also clean incoming or outgoing air.”When the ‘source’ of the pollution is inside the building, for instance when a corona patient lies in a hospital room, contaminated air may be recirculated within the building. Eliane: “Our claim is that all the air that comes through our purification system is virus free, but we can’t guarantee that a room is 100% virus free when there is a continuous internal source. However, we can greatly improve the air quality and lessen the risk of the virus spreading .”The conversation that turned everything around “I have always been an entrepreneur”, says Eliane. “I had my first business when I was 16, importing and selling contact lenses. VFA Solutions was the logical consequence of my master’s thesis at Delft University of Technology on electrostatics and nano-particles. I graduated in 2006 and developed the first prototype of the air purifier in my living room. Out of a bottle of coke and a stack of needles.” Two years later Eliane lost her mother to a virus, ironically just when she finished her prototype. “I fell into a black hole. I hadn’t been fast enough with my invention. I really blamed myself for not being able to save my mother.”In 2009 Eliane came to a point that she was done with it all. She wanted to quit. Then she had a conversation with a friendly supplier that became her epiphany. Eliane: “When I told him my story he broke down crying. He had lost two of his children within a period of three years. Also as a result of hospital infections. That conversation brought me back my motivation. There is so much to gain from prevention. Especially in The Netherlands I’m afraid.”Why especially in The Netherlands? “Well, let’s say that the Dutch are not yet really willing to invest in prevention. Take for instance child care facilities: nothing is done preventively when it comes to air quality. People consider it ‘nice to have’, not ‘must have’. And then there is the question who will pay for the solution: is it the child care facility or the local government? In the end, nothing happens.”From agriculture to dentistryEliane first got foot on the ground in agriculture, “In a sustainable chicken farming business called Kipster. They wanted to get rid of the emissions as closely to the chicken as possible. With our air purification solution, the farmer increased his own health and the health of his animals and the environment.”Nowadays it is mostly dentists and private clinics that order her Virus Free Air Solutions. Eliane: “Hospitals are too busy and their purchasing departments focus completely on personal protection equipment like face masks. That’s completely understandable.” Nevertheless she thinks it ironic that air purifiers are only bought áfter there’s been a contagion. Especially since all diseases gather under one roof in hospitals. “Ten to thirty percent of the people that go into the hospital – under normal circumstances – come out with some kind of infection. The prevalence of illnesses in hospitals is incredibly high. It’s a risk factor to both patients and staff.”The bet that ended in a moveEliane Khoury studied in Delft, but she actually moved to The Netherlands for love. “Back in Israel I met a Dutch guy and we clicked very well. After a couple of years we wanted to move in together and we took a bet: the one that would lose, would have to move. I lost. And no, I’m not going to tell what the bet was about!”, she laughs.The first couple of months in The Netherlands were really tough. It was cold, Eliane had no friends and the food was so-so. “I wanted to do something useful and get to know the Dutch language, the culture, that’s why I started my master’s in biochemical engineering at the TU Delft. In Israel I had already done a bachelor in chemical engineering, so it was a logical move.” Thanks to her inventiveness and perseverance, Eliane Khoury’s company now has an important role to play in the corona pandemic. “And hopefully the idea of prevention will gain more ground among the Dutch.”Eliane in shortEliane Khoury was born in Israel where she did a bachelor in chemical engineering before moving to the Netherlands in 2006 and doing a master's in biochemical engineering at the TU Delft.Currently Eliane is the owner of the companies Virus Free Air and VFA Solutions in Schiedam (the Netherlands). “Preventing disease, that’s my overall motivation. After many difficult years, my company is now growing fast. It’s a bit cynical that it needed a pandemic before people started to appreciate preventive measures.”An important takeaway from her studies is that the Netherlands is a country of rules, yet it is very tolerant and multinational. “Everyone has equal rights and opportunities, for example everyone has proper healthcare coverage, everyone can go to study any subject he or she may like and the career choices are not strictly related to the education discipline.” Eliane’s tip to future international students: “The Netherlands is a land of opportunities on different levels: educational, social and professional. Many chances are there to grab. You just need to open your eyes, see it and grab it.”Find Eliane on Linkedin .