Using LED technology he helped develop at BU, alum aims to address complex global health and hygiene problems
By Sara Cody, originally published in the Fall 2016 issue of ENGineer magazine.
Germs are everywhere. Lurking on our hands, in our water, in our kitchens and even in our hospitals. According to the Centers for Disease Control, there were more than 722,000 hospital-associated infections in 2011 – 75,000 of them fatal. But what if there were a reliable way to disinfect a large area with the flick of a light switch?
With an idea that evolved into reality during his time as an ENG graduate student, Yitao Liao (ECE, Ph.D.’11) is employing his innovation in the fight against infection with his company RayVio Corp.
“Simply put, RayVio is an advanced health and hygiene company that offers innovative ultraviolet (UV) LED technology that can be used to clean the environment and reduce the risk of people coming into contact with harmful germs,” says Liao. “Compared to traditional sanitation methods, with our technology you don’t have to deal with harmful chemicals or energy-intensive processes, like boiling, to kill germs. It can be easily integrated into everyday applications, so it would be easy to set up, comprehensive and efficient.”
RayVio uses a proprietary UV LED technology packaged in a device that resembles a computer chip and can be integrated into a variety of consumer and industrial products. For example, RayVio’s first consumer product will be a baby bottle sterilizer it will be introduced in late fall 2016 on Indiegogo’s crowdfunding site. The compact bottle sterilizer disinfects baby bottles and nipples at the touch of a button–protecting infants from harmful germs and making sterilization easier for their busy parents. Other consumer applications for UV/LED technology could integrate it into a kitchen faucet that works in tandem with a water filter. Instead of simply removing large particles, the faucet attachment could actively kill germs that lurk in water, making tap water clean and safe to drink. This has huge implications for developing countries, where access to clean water is limited.
The UV LED technology essentially has limitless applications into new and existing systems for surface, air and water purification. For example, a basic lightbulb, modified with a UV LED attachment could provide sterilization in a hospital room or waiting area. Integrating the technology into certain public transportation applications could purify air and disinfect surfaces in planes, trains and buses.
“Our goal is to deliver UV light in the form of an LED light source in a convenient format to areas and applications where people need it most,” says Liao. “By removing the need for caustic materials like bleach or mercury in the disinfection process, we are poised to create social impact while reducing the stress we put on the environment from using toxic chemicals.”
The idea for RayVio was born at BU through Liao’s work as a graduate student working under Professor Theodore Moustakas (ECE, MSE). Liao grew the company in the Business Innovation Center, an incubator in the Photonics Center, using BU resources like the Office of Technology Development to develop and commercialize his technology.
“I have been privileged to mentor many students throughout my career, but Yitao stands out for his creativity and persistence in pursuing his work,” says Moustakas. “He could have had a steady, solid job at a big company, but he gave that up to build his own right here at BU. He has worked hard to solve a complex problem and I have no doubt that the story of his dogged persistence and commitment to social impact will inspire many in the BU engineering community.”
Pursuing entrepreneurship with social impact has long been the end goal for Liao. Growing up in Deyang, a town outside the city of Chengdu, China, he started high school at the beginning of the dot-com boom and was immediately inspired by pioneering internet entrepreneurs. Even at a young age, he understood the potential that technology has to improve the lives of people, and he wanted to create something himself that had broad-ranging social impact.
“Back then, it took three entire days just to download a single mp3 song file. I saw a need for improved performance and discovered that the U.S. and Japan were using fiber optic communication to do this, so I became interested in that,” says Liao. “Because of my interest in telecommunication and fiber optics, I decided to major in photonics at an engineering-focused university in Chengdu.”
After his first year at the university, Liao lobbied his university for a position in a photonics research laboratory, which was unheard of for undergraduate students. Since the laboratory collaborated with a large fiber optic company based in the United States, he quickly realized the vast amount of resources available here that weren’t available in China at the time. This realization prompted Liao to pursue a master’s degree in the U.S., and when he learned about the Photonics Center at BU, he knew it would be the right fit.
“In addition to the Photonics program being one of the strongest in the country, I was attracted to the entrepreneurial mindset of the mission of the Photonics Center, not only to support student research but also to support commercializing it,” says Liao. “I even wrote my personal statement about wanting to start a company in the Business Innovation Center.”
Liao had the opportunity to work with Moustakas, co-advised by Professor Roberto Paiella (ECE). His first project involved creating a semiconductor material and process for an optical switching device, but he soon realized it was not aligned with market needs at the time.
“I was considering continuing my PhD but it was clear this project wasn’t going to fit what I wanted to accomplish,” says Liao. “I decided taking a break and doing an internship would be a good opportunity to do my research in a new industry before making the jump to a full PhD program in that area.”
Liao accepted an internship with an MIT company creating high-powered visible luminous devices suitable for projection, which could be used in televisions and projectors and was enough to convince Liao of LEDs’ commercial potential. And Moustakas, a pioneer in the field of LEDs, was the perfect mentor for him.
Liao returned to BU and pursued his PhD research, where he received a grant from the U.S. Army to develop UV LEDs, which led to the birth of RayVio. Not only were Liao and Moustakas able to develop the breakthrough technology, but the device that could be commercialized as well.
With the help of the BU Office of Technology Development (OTD), Liao filed the appropriate patents and intellectual property licenses to protect his idea and connected with venture capitalists to raise funds to get his fledgling company off the ground. OTD helped him draft his initial business plan and a year after he graduated RayVio was incorporated as a company.
Today, RayVio is based in Hayward, California and recently expanded to offices in Beijing and Taiwan. Though he couldn’t speak about specific customers due to confidentiality agreements, RayVio boasts a broad portfolio of customers in health, hygiene and disinfection fields to integrate the technology into industry and consumer products and generate revenue. As he works to expand his company’s global presence and fuel its success, Liao still has his sights set on leaving the world a better place than he found it through his work with his company.
“From my time at BU to present day, I try to live the life of a societal engineer,” says Liao. “Whether you end up in academia or industry or a field outside of engineering, your engineering training has given you a methodical mindset to solve problems, which can apply to many different industries. No matter what you choose to do, your engineering mindset can be applied to positively impact society.”