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July 30, 2020 11:08 am

Young Global Jewry at Forefront of Fight Against COVID-19

avatar by Benjamin Raziel

Employees of Israel’s Sonovia Ltd, makers of washable and reusable antiviral masks, which the company says can help stop the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), work at their laboratory in Ramat Gan, Israel, May 17, 2020. Photo: Reuter / Amir Cohen.

Masa Israel Journey, a leader in immersive international experiences in Israel founded by the Jewish Agency and government of Israel, is playing a remarkable and unusual role in fighting the current coronavirus pandemic through facilitating employment and internships for talented young adults from the US, UK, France, and the former Soviet Union.

In particular, the majority of the staff at the biotechnology startup Sonovia is composed of Masa Israel fellows and alumni, working on everything from scientific research and development to marketing.

Sonovia is currently on the cutting edge of the battle against the pandemic with the development of the SonoMask, a new piece of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) that appears to provide an unprecedented level of protection against viral infection.

The mask works because its anti-microbial material has been treated with a zinc-oxide formulation that both blocks and kills viruses. It retains this capability for a year even if it is washed once a week, and is therefore much more environmentally friendly than the standard disposable masks currently in use.

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Masa Israel was heavily involved in facilitating Sonovia’s hiring of Lead Scientist Jason Migdal, who conceived the masks. Migdal says that he knew about Masa for some time, and after a memorable Birthright trip he became interested in possibly working in Israel. A year ago, he contacted Masa about working in the biotech sector.

Originally, Migdal wanted to practice veterinary medicine, but found the Israeli licensing requirements insurmountable; so, he used his credentials in biomedicine to enter the Tel Aviv startup ecosystem.

He became involved in Sonovia through Masa Israel’s career development program which matches qualified graduates with internships and entry-level jobs in Israeli companies.

“I worked with Masa representatives to find a biotech company on their databases and to arrange interviews with relevant opportunities,” he says. “The Masa team helped me prepare my CV in a way that Israeli employers would typically look to see and were always on hand to answer questions every step of the way.”

Eventually, they helped him find an opportunity with Sonovia, and he “jumped at the chance to join.”

His involvement in the development of the new masks came at the beginning of the corona pandemic, when he “considered the possibility of how our novel technology could potentially provide a solution.”

Because Sonovia’s existing mask technology had proved to be effective against bacteria and fungi, Migdal says, “I hypothesized that the same would hold true for viruses since they also have a lipid membrane which is pivotal for the biological reaction which occurs when a microorganism comes into contact with our treated fabrics.”

This led Migdal into “deep-diving” research that ultimately received support from Sonovia’s founders, leading to the development of the SonoMask.

The rest took place very quickly. Employing people from the garment industry who had lost their jobs due to corona and in collaboration with the Bruckner manufacturing company in Germany, Migdal says, “we were then able to start right away sewing and cutting and creating prototypes.”

The first prototypes were donated to Israeli medical staff and non-profits with positive results, leading to the commercial launch of the product in March.

“The SonoMask offers many benefits over current categories of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) due to its innate anti-viral ability and unrivalled durability, and therefore presents a game-changer for contagion protection upon a global scale to cope with sub-standard PPE shortages,” Migdal says, and the masks are now waiting for FDA approval, after which mass production for hospitals and first responders will begin.

Masa, Migdal says, plays an important role in the development of such technologies by uniting Jewish minds from around the world to enhance their expertise.

“It goes without question that Masa provides a key informational hub uniting many professionals in discussion through its events and webinars,” he says. “Scientists within the Jewish community are better able to share and exchange ideas for pandemic control through many of these initiatives.”

“For example, an event hosted at Israel Tech Challenge by Masa helped introduce Sonovia to data scientists and we are now together working on generating a simulation based upon the available data regarding how greatly SonoMask can stop the pandemic to provide governmental bodies with the information they need to join our cause,” he adds.

Ofer Gutman, the acting CEO of Masa, comments, “Jews around the world are on the frontlines of the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. There is great opportunity to bring highly-skilled professionals together in Israel to collaborate on innovative solutions.”

“We are proud to connect young and bright professionals with Israel’s start-up nation to make an impact internationally,” he adds.

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