Last April 13, as an ambulance sped him to the hospital, Monzer Hourani overheard the emergency medical technicians say they didn’t think he was going to make it. Immediately, the 77-year-old medical-building developer started praying: “God, give me time to finish this.”
Hourani had just begun his war against COVID-19, and he needed more time to develop his weapon—an air filter technology that annihilates coronavirus and other airborne germs.
“There is so much death, suffering and isolation. I want to kill the virus indoors and make it safer for people to be together again,” says Hourani, chairman and CEO of Medistar Corp., which he formed in 1983. Vaccines are important but “they won’t help against the next pandemic,” he adds.
Called the Biodefense Indoor Air Protection System and launched last August, Hourani’s brainchild is a proprietary souped-up HEPA filter. Unlike ordinary HEPA filters that trap but do not kill airborne pathogens, the Hourani filter, with its layers of hyper-heated nickel foam mesh, traps and zaps a whopping 99.999% of the coronavirus, with only trace increases in ambient air temperature.
When Hourani collapsed last April, he was in a work frenzy designing the filter. And, like a conductor auditioning an orchestra, he was assembling the filter’s team under his newest business venture, Integrated Viral Protection, which he chairs.
Hourani financed IVP with “millions of dollars” of his own personal fortune. Though a for-profit company, it has a noble purpose: to respond to the COVID-19 global pandemic by fostering research, development and deployment of technologies that offer solutions to mitigate the transmission of biological threats in indoor environments. “My philosophy of life is to help humanity,” says Hourani.
He almost missed his chance, last April 13. “We lost vital signs and CPR was started,” recalls Dr. Garrett K. Peel, Hourani’s doctor and protege, who was with him in the ambulance.
The diagnosis was gastrointestinal hemorrhaging, says the 45-year-old Peel, who also is Hourani’s second-in-command in the virus wars. “I am taking a sabbatical from my medical practice to help deliver Monzer’s invention to the world,” says Peel, IVP’s co-founder and managing director, as well as
Medistar’s executive vice president.
A general surgeon, Peel also is qualified to market the IVP filter. He has a master’s degree in health science and public health policy from Johns Hopkins University, and he majored in political communication at George Washington University.
Like a Tiger
Hourani says he now feels “like a tiger.” But he was in intensive care for almost a week, on a ventilator for a day and in and out of Houston Methodist Hospital at the Texas Medical Center over a six-week period.
It took four surgical procedures and multiple blood transfusions to stop the bleeding. “All the time, Monzer was worried about the invention—designing, sketching, even talking about it to U.S. Senators,” says Peel, who camped out at Hourani’s bedside during the ordeal.
IVP’s small but growing army of virus slayers agree that the technology is more than a weapon against COVID-19. The filter raises the overall standard for indoor air quality, they chorus. And it doubles as a hedge against future scourges because it also kills coronavirus variants, other viruses, allergens and bacteria such as legionella. The filter even zaps 99.8% of anthrax spores, according to test results from the Galveston National Laboratory, which ran the unprecedented live-virus tests on the filter’s prototype.
“It is a revolutionary invention” that allows owners of schools, restaurants, airports, stores, hotels, theaters and all other buildings “to take action today.”
—Kenneth Thorpe, Institute For Advanced Policy Solutions
IVP has sold $15 million worth of the product since August. “This is a paradigm shift in how we look at the future of HVAC systems,” says Peel, who participated with Hourani in the filter’s research and development at the Texas Center for Superconductivity of the University of Houston (UH).
For mobilizing and financing a team to quickly develop and deploy his brainchild; for raising the bar for higher-quality indoor air, especially as a hedge against future scourges; and for going above and beyond the call of duty to help free people and the economy from the shackles of COVID-19, the editors of Engineering News-Record have named Monzer Hourani the winner of the 2021 ENR Award of Excellence.
“Without Monzer, there would be no technology,” says Zhifeng Ren, director of the Texas Center for Superconductivity, co-lead researcher and one of Hourani’s filter co-inventors, with UH postdoctoral fellow Luo Yu. The three are listed on the patent application, filed last fall.
Ren, who currently also serves as IVP’s scientific advisor, considers the filter among his most important projects.
“It is a revolutionary invention” that allows owners of schools, restaurants, airports, stores, hotels, theaters and all other buildings “to take action today,” says Kenneth Thorpe, executive director of Emory University’s Institute for Advanced Policy Solutions. “The filter has economic importance and will have an impact on morbidity and mortality,” predicts Thorpe, who came upon IVP last summer while researching air purifiers. Impressed with the filter as different from others, he joined IVP as a consultant, to make the filter’s economic and public health case.
Response to Complex Emergencies
Though a dreamer, Hourani is also a pragmatist. He knows a single invention will not conquer any pandemic. Consequently, this week he is launching—and funding—a nonprofit consortium of scholars, scientists, engineers, construction leaders and policy experts to help “deploy life-saving technology” in response to complex emergencies, such as environmental disasters and pandemics. The mission of the public-private partnership, called the Global Institute for Biodefense and Emerging Solutions, is to clear barriers to innovation for startups, so they can deploy new technologies—from proof of concept to manufacturing—at a much faster pace.
Thorpe and T. Allan McArtor, chairman of Airbus North America and a former Federal Aviation Administrator, co-chair the consortium. “If we assemble the experts, we can figure this out” for generations to come, Hourani says. “We need to be ahead of the next crisis, not on the defensive.”
Though his first profession was structural engineering, Hourani is primarily a developer. Also a classical music devotee, he guest conducts at two orchestras he supports financially.
Described by others as brilliant, talented, generous, devoted and “very intense,” Hourani self-describes as a humble man—but one with little patience and a bad temper.
For his COVID-19 crusade, Hourani’s impatience is an asset. With the death toll mounting, “we’re still in a race against time,” he says.
Hourani’s rescue mission started early last year when, ahead of most of the pack, he warned that airborne COVID-19 transmission was going to kill hundreds of thousands and shut down society. Too restless to wait for a vaccine, he wanted to take action. But he wasn’t sure how to proceed.
His path forward revealed itself by happenstance on March 27 of last year—not long before his near-death experience. The circumstances bring to mind Alexander Fleming’s 1928 discovery of penicillin. When Fleming returned from vacation he noticed mold—growing on an accidentally contaminated staphylococcus culture dish—had stopped the bacteria’s growth.
Hourani’s “aha” moment was both more mundane and more dramatic. Impatient to eat, he had ordered his housekeeper to make a grilled cheese sandwich—fast. She quickly popped a sandwich into the toaster and left the kitchen.
Big mistake. Cheese sandwiches and toasters don’t mix, especially untended. The sandwich burned.
Hourani raced to the scene. Watching the billowing smoke rise toward the exhaust vent, he thought, “Why don’t we grill not a cheese sandwich but corona?”
He started sketching, took the toaster to work and never looked back. By March 31, Peel had contacted the Texas Center for Superconductivity for help. Thanks to “team Hourani,” it took only five months to get the air filter designed, laboratory tested, peer reviewed, beta-tested, certified, manufactured and deployed (see sidebar).
The tempo is considered warp speed for new technology.
Hourani’s drive to rescue humanity, combined with his intense desire for peace on Earth, are informed by several childhood traumas related to strife in the Middle East. Part of a prominent Christian family originally from Marjayoun, in the mountains of South Lebanon, Hourani was born on June 22, 1943, to Adib and Adiba, in nearby Palestine, where his grandfather owned land. He has three younger siblings.
He had his first traumatic experience at age five. To escape the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, his family abandoned its holdings in Palestine and fled back to Lebanon, soon after the burning of the church his family attended. “My birth records were destroyed, so I don’t know exactly where I was born,” says Hourani.
He grew up in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city, where his father taught college English and history. For a time, life was not bad. When he was six, he discovered music. “At age eight, I conducted songs with my friends and tried to make them love classical music, but all my efforts were wasted,” he says.
Hourani studied piano, but soon he started playing music in his head, especially on his solo explorations. Curious about trains and nature, he would often wander off without telling his parents. On one occasion, he hopped on a train, fell asleep and woke up at the border. He was rescued by a couple on the train who happened to know his parents.
Less than a decade after the family returned to Lebanon, political tensions—which eventually erupted in the July-to-October Civil War of 1958—started mounting. Hostility kept growing between the warring sides—Muslims against ruling Christians. The U.S., which supported the Christian President Camille Chamoun, was also involved.
The Houranis were caught in the crossfire. “All our family was for peace, including peace with Israel,” says Hourani.
The hostility caused his second trauma, at age 14. Thanks to a fascination with “America, American Indians and the Wild West,” Hourani would often while away the hours at the U.S. Information Services Library.
On May 8, 1958, Hourani and his favorite librarian, Stefan, heard noises and looked outside. People were running toward the library, throwing rocks. Hourani hid under a table, but Stefan was caught by the mob.
“They stabbed him to death,” Hourani says, who escaped, ran home and didn’t stop screaming for two days.
The May 8-10 riots resulted in 15 deaths and more than 128 wounded. And the insurgents destroyed the library.
That trauma was horrific enough but it paled by comparison to his next one, about six weeks later.
On June 21, a day before his 15th birthday, Hourani and his mother were out helping poor people in a neighborhood known to be unsafe. In a flash, in front of his eyes, his mother was shot and killed.
Monzer Hourani Acceptance Speech
Classical Music Healed My Wounds
Somehow, Hourani and his family carried on. “Classical music healed my wounds,” he says.
Seven years later, after receiving baccalaureates from the French Institute in both mathematics and physics, Hourani left Lebanon to study at the University of Texas at Austin. By 1969, he had bachelor’s degrees in architectural studies and architectural engineering, with a focus on structures.
After a stint in Detroit at Giffels & Rosetti, he returned to Lebanon. He came back to the U.S. in 1971, and had an assignment with an architect in Phoenix. In 1972, with structural engineer Don Lenert, he formed Lenert Hourani & Associates Structural Engineering. That firm became M. Hourani & Associates Inc. in 1975, when Lenert retired.
Also in 1975, Hourani became a professional engineer. His license remained active until 2019, when he forgot it was up for renewal. It expired without his awareness. Last year, he submitted his renewal application, which is pending.
“With the pandemic, my recent health setbacks, family difficulties in Lebanon and the licensing board’s requirements, the problem took a good part of last year to rectify,” he says.
In the early 1980s, there was another civil war in Lebanon. Hourani sold his engineering business to take care of his family, mostly still living there. In 1983, he founded Medistar, which he owns with the Hourani Family Trust.
“Through health care development, I was able to stay true to my passion for structural engineering,” he says.
The filter is Hourani’s first global crisis intervention. But he has other inventions. In the 1970s, to solve cracking caused by poor soil conditions in Houston’s slabs on grade, Hourani applied post-tensioning—typically reserved for higher-up thin slabs—to grade slabs. He also used PT in retaining walls.
Troubled by the poor performance of windows during hurricane winds, Hourani invented a window brace. Patented in 2002, it is designed to resist winds from Category 4 and 5 hurricanes. The brace is installed temporarily in advance of a storm.
Inspired by the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, he conceived of an oil skimmer. After the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, Hourani spent several weeks on site with British Petroleum officials and the Corps of Engineers, refining the skimmer for use in the cleanup, he says.
More recently, spurred by Hurricane Harvey in 2017, when he had to be rescued by boat from his house on the Buffalo Bayou, he developed a concept called Project Dam. It is intended to relieve flooding along the bayou through the construction of discharge outlets and associated works for the Addicks and Barker reservoirs.
“Monzer is a Renaissance man and the 1% inspiration behind many good ideas,” says Joseph Colaco, president of Colaco Engineers, who has recently performed conceptual structural design for Medistar projects.
Hourani’s earlier inventions are trumped by the filter. IVP deployed mobile devices first because heating, ventilating and air-conditioning (HVAC) system retrofits—with perhaps the biggest potential for impact—are not as simple to deploy as a plug-in unit.
The HVAC application, fitted to existing or new commercial or residential buildings, will debut within two months, according to the Hunton Group, which distributes HVAC systems and products and is partnering with IVP. Hunton’s team is working out the logistics for a “cost-effective retrofit,” says R.O. Hunton, chairman, who declines to offer details so Hunton can stay ahead of the competition (see p. 8).
“We are very, very bullish on the filter,” says Hunton, who was not any easy sell. “Protective of our reputation, we did a lot of research before we agreed to represent this product,” he says. “It’s the only one we were able to find that captured the virus and then instantaneously killed it. And it didn’t increase the air-conditioning load because of the way it was designed and the use of nickel foam.”
Portable Unit for Easy Toting
This month, IVP launched a lightweight portable unit designed to fit into a backpack for easy toting. It cleans a 240-sq-ft area. A larger-venue mobile unit for airports and retail malls, described as an air vacuum that roams the space on a customized electric cart, begins beta testing May 1. A face shield and an automobile filter are in the final stages of R&D. Hourani even has plans for a mini-filter that fits into an elevator cab. And he is working on a version that can be retrofitted into a car’s HVAC system.
Hourani decided to deploy to schools first. The Slidell Independent School District (ISD), which draws 345 pre-kindergarten through grade-12 students from four rural counties in northeast Texas, debuted the system last August. Slidell has nine units to help protect students and 52 employees in its two buildings.
“This filter is here for the long term for keeping our students well and it gives staff and parents a sense of safety and security.”
—Taylor Williams, School Superintendent, Slidell ISD
Remote learning last spring, prompted by the pandemic, was a big problem because half the student body did not have the technology needed or good internet or cell phone signals, says Taylor Williams, the school superintendent. Students fell three months behind in their studies, she says.
“In June, the principals and I knew there was no way we were going to be able to make remote learning work after the summer break,” says Williams. But in-person learning was going to be more difficult, especially since it had become clear that transmission was primarily through droplets, she adds.
Then, in July, the region’s state representative, Phil King, called Williams to inquire whether Slidell wanted to be the first school demonstration site for the filter. Not believing her ears, Williams did some research and accepted the offer.
The IVP units, mostly paid for with $12,500 of CARES Act funds, arrived and were plugged in on Aug. 18, the day before school started. Within six weeks, attendance was better than ever, at 98%.
“The COVID numbers around us, in other districts, kept going up, but we never spiked,” Williams says. A side benefit was that there was no strep and no flu this winter. “This filter is here for the long term to keep our kids well, and it gives the staff and our parents a sense of safety and security,” she adds.
Williams has had inquiries from other superintendents. One came last summer from Kelli Moulton, the recently retired superintendent of the Galveston ISD, which serves 7,000 students on 13 campuses.
Galveston has since made a $100,000 investment in 78 classroom-size machines and 45 larger units for gyms, libraries and cafeterias. Again, CARES Act funds helped.
In Galveston, 88% of students are back in school. “I don’t think there is any metric solid enough now to determine the effectiveness” of the units in preventing the spread of COVID-19, especially because people can be exposed elsewhere, says Moulton. “But it’s one way to make people feel more comfortable,” she adds.
Moulton is such a fan of the filter that in February she signed on as a Hunton consultant. As the educational and governmental leader for IVP distribution, she is working through a list of superintendents in the more than 1,200 school districts in Texas. She started with the areas that have the most COVID-19 cases.
IVP units are currently in buildings in 45 states and Dubai, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, South Korea and Hong Kong, says IVP. The filters are in more than 100 public and private hospitals, including COVID-19 facilities. Two convention centers are outfitted, with a third on its way. Three international hotel chains are installing them.
Number of Installations Growing
The number of installations keeps growing, mostly but not exclusively in Texas: schools, early childhood centers, nursing homes, municipal buildings and gyms. The 250,000-sq-ft Canyon Ranch Spa in Las Vegas now has units. And the number of office buildings with units also is growing.
IVP is in partnership with Asset Living, a student housing provider, and Greystone Senior Living. And it is working with Medical Properties Trust, which provides capital for hospitals, and the Steward Health Care Network.
IVP deployed units to Michigan’s Wayne County Jail. And the U.S. Dept. of Defense has granted IVP $750,000, coming in three installments, to develop the technology for war zones.
In coming weeks, IVP will be presenting to state COVID-19 task forces in California, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Florida, Arizona and Nevada, says Peel.
Hourani is proud of his 10-person IVP team. And he is equally impressed by his 25-person Medistar team.
“In these times, to be able to forge ahead, finance and deliver the largest public-private partnership outside College Station for Texas A&M University is nothing short of a miracle,” he says, referring to a $550-million student housing, biomedical and life-sciences project under construction at the Texas Medical Center.
In downtown Phoenix, Medistar hopes to break ground this year on a $300-million apartment, office, retail and student housing project that encloses 1 million sq ft, located at Central Station. “Monzer’s keen attention to detail is what sets him apart from other developers,” says Christine Mackay, the city’s economic development director. “He challenges everyone to be their best.”
Hourani has close relationships with collaborators. “His performance as a developer is without peer,” says William Harlan, chairman and CEO of Ascend Medical Holdings, which invests in health care properties.
Despite his accomplishments, Hourani—who was vaccinated several months ago and wears a mask in public places that don’t have IVP filters—is under stress on several fronts.
He has long felt responsible for the care of relatives in Lebanon, which remains in deep turmoil. And the pandemic and its economic ramifications for Medistar—financing is tight, projects are on hold—are weighing heavily on his shoulders. “I am spread between all of this,” he says.
Antidote to Stress
Again, his antidote to stress is music. On April 8, he guest conducted at a performance involving the UH Moores School Symphony Orchestra, the Virtuosi of Houston youth orchestra and members of the Houston Symphony and Houston Grand Opera. The concert, which Hourani sponsored, was at the Wortham Theater Center, equipped with IVP filters. Another concert with only the UH orchestra is scheduled for May 1 at the Moores School Opera House, also equipped with the filters.
Hourani supports both the Virtuosi and the UH orchestras. “Monzer is in life for young people,” says Franz Anton Krager, who co-conducts the Virtuosi with Andrzej Grabiec. Both teach at the Moores School, which Hourani also supports.
There are IVP units throughout the school—in the lobby, in practice rooms and in rehearsal and performance halls, where the Virtuosi also plays. “Monzer brought the winds, who couldn’t play wearing masks, back to the orchestras,” says Krager, who is “blown away” by Hourani’s knowledge of music and his many other achievements.
Hourani only gets to conduct at a few concerts a year. That doesn’t stop him from enjoying his favorite pastime. Because he hears the music in his head and he never uses a score, he can conduct, or rather “air” conduct, at the drop of a hat—anywhere, any time and at any volume.
All Hourani needs is his baton and he is a happy camper, truly absorbed in his treasured sounds of music.