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The Man Behind the Masks

Can Jeff Gabbay’s textile breakthrough combat coronavirus?
Photos: Elchanan Kotler

"Argaman Tech?” says the overall-clad delivery man in the Talpiot industrial zone. “Is that the events hall?”

It’s Sunday afternoon, and the warren of garages in Jerusalem’s car repair district is a far cry from the gleaming high-tech parks of Wuhan, China’s coronavirus epicenter.

The streets of the one are full of Israelis beginning their week after a Shabbos break; the streets of the other are empty as Chinese authorities keep the place under lockdown.

Even the container-loads of plastic baubles disgorged into the nearby stores, whose “Made in China” label does the People’s Republic no PR favors, has nothing to do with the city that is panicking the world: Wuhan produces advanced optics, not cheap toys.

Which makes it all the more incredible that the man whose high-tech face masks became a viral video sensation in the global coronavirus scare is sitting right here between the rows of greasy body shops lining the Talpiot street.

“Argaman Technologies” reads the sign over the nondescript front door. Inside, talking to a group of PhDs and engineers, is New York-born Jeff Gabbay, officially a textile engineer, but with a long background in military projects that he doesn’t want to talk about.

The award in his office from Japan’s National Police hints to his role in advising governments and militaries all over the world. But his technology, backed by one of the world’s biggest clothing manufacturers, now has a distinctly civilian cast to it.

The green medical scrubs that Gabbay’s company produces could be found on any hospital ward — but with their nano-engineering, he says, they’re far more than typical scrubs; they actually kill bacteria.

The samples of yellow towels, white sheets, and gray overalls look like the cotton they are. But their advanced fibers make them odor-free — as attested by Jeff himself, a man who only needs to change his socks once a month.

This technology has already helped miners survive weeks trapped underground in a Peruvian mine disaster with minimal infection. But now in 2020, Jeff says that it’s on the cusp of revolutionizing areas as disparate as cosmetics, sleep problems, and hospital hygiene. And with the spread of coronavirus a real concern throughout the world, it holds real promise to become incredibly lucrative as well.

In between his meetings with representatives of the Singaporean and Spanish governments, Jeff describes how the advanced cottons he produces are designed to ease wound care, to stop deadly hospital infections, and to protect immune-deficient patients.

It all sounds like science fiction — can it really be true? Large-scale studies have yet to confirm his products’ efficacy (and, according to standard medical protocol, thorough hygiene is still considered the primary means of infection control), but governments around the world seem to trust the existing data that Jeff’s specially treated textiles can offer protection from  coronavirus. With three million face masks being rushed from his production headquarters to Hong Kong, Argaman is scrambling to ramp up production as orders pour in from governments in Asia and Europe.

The quest to combat corona may be an outgrowth of Jeff Gabbay’s decades-long push to use high-tech to ease human suffering — but now it’s become personal as well. Battling his third bout of cancer, Gabbay’s made it a habit to give away his high-tech masks to anyone undergoing the trauma of chemotherapy.

So it’s with deadly seriousness that he’s driven to take his science further. “It’s not me who did this,” he says. “These breakthroughs came so easy that I can see Hashem’s help. And I feel that at this stage in my life, I’ve made money, and I’ve lost it — now I want to make the world a better place.”

To coin a phrase, you can tell a lot about a man from his office. Jeff Gabbay’s plaster-walled cubicle is hardly C-suite, but the tchotchkes speak a world of his mix of creativity, human interest, and Jewish feeling.

There’s a massive 1:100 scale model sailing ship, hand-built and complete in all the glory of its rigging, sails, and Union Jack. “Isn’t it beautiful?” he asks. “That’s the Cutty Sark, the world’s fastest tea clipper,” he says referring to a ship that stands in London’s National Maritime Museum, an object of boredom or delight for visiting British schoolchildren.

There’s a giant picture of Jeff driving on the golf course with an award from Israeli cancer charity Ezer Mizion for winning their championship. It’s an image all the more poignant given the portable radiator gently roasting all in the room except Jeff, who is freezing due to his ongoing treatment.

And then there’s his kippah, which is its own story. “After the video about the mask went viral last week, someone told me I was very brave for wearing it when people from all over the world were going to see,” says Jeff. “But I said, no, that’s the kiddush Hashem, that people can see where this came from.”

Jeff Gabbay came by that viewpoint on his own. Born in Great Neck, Long Island, to parents who hailed from Baghdad, his home was very secular. “My father said that he left all his Judaism behind in Iraq,” says Jeff. “My mother didn’t light Shabbat candles, we didn’t keep Pesach — nothing.”

Emigrating to the United States, the Gabbay family may have left behind their Jewish practice, but not their blue blood. “Both my mother and my father were descendants of Rabbi Abdallah Somekh, teacher of the Ben Ish Chai. My mother was a granddaughter of the Sassoon family, who lived in Bombay and were famous for their wealth, closeness to the British royal family, and Torah learning.

“In fact,” recalls Jeff, “Grandma Sassoon was a talmidah chachamah herself. She knew Shas and had it printed out on a revolving contraption so she could open wherever she liked.”

In something of a mixed marriage, Jeff’s own yichus met its match in his wife’s: “She’s a Ziditchoiver einekel,” he smiles.

But all of that was in the religious future when young Gabbay was growing up in 1950s Great Neck. The golf he was raised playing would only have limited utility given Jerusalem’s dearth of courses, but the Judaeo-Arabic he learned at home proved more useful when he made aliyah.

“At 21, I decided to move here,” he says. “Once I became religious, coming to Israel seemed as natural as putting on tefillin. So I came here, joined the army, and then began working.”

There’s clearly more to those words than meets the eye. “I was a captain in the army and spoke Arabic,” is all he’ll say, and breaks into conversation with Elchanan, our Israeli photographer, who, it turns out, speaks a workable Arabic. Reading between the lines of Jeff’s reticence, and subsequent work in materials with military applications, it isn’t hard to imagine that his army career wasn’t in the infantry.

“I’m a textile engineer, and I had the best teachers a person could ever have,” he says. “I’ve spent time working with the best chemists and pathologists, so my background is multifaceted.”

Whatever those classified endeavors were, they took a civilian turn at the 1991 Gulf War, when Israel was bombarded with Saddam Hussein’s Scud missiles. Israel’s civilians sat in their sealed rooms clad in gas masks, fearful of a chemical attack. Those scenes provided the impetus for Jeff Gabbay’s turn to protective civilian materials.

A few years later, his research matured into a company called Cupron, famed for its chemical formulation that can bind copper to textiles. In time, Cupron won 17 patents and distribution agreements in key markets across the globe, and Gabbay’s technology was used in socks worn by the US Marines and in hospital apparel as well.

But it took the 2010 Peruvian mining disaster for Cupron to hit the headlines. “At some point during those two months that the 33 miners were trapped underground, they began to develop fungus due to the humidity,” says Jeff. “Back here we thought that if we could treat their legs, then fungus, which travels upward, wouldn’t spread and infect the rest of their bodies.”

Cupron socks were transported to the miners on day 36 of their ordeal, and when they emerged into daylight nearly a month later, the copper-infused fabric was credited with saving them from serious infection. “The miners were later brought here to Israel,” says Jeff Gabbay, “and when they heard that I’d invented the socks, they gave me a standing ovation.”

Cupron was enough of a success that it enabled Gabbay to plough two million dollars of his own money into Argaman, his current venture. And in a certain sense, those copper socks are the precursors to the mask now on the desk in front of us, which an engineer comes in to discuss.

“It has to lie further up the face. This is falling from my nose — it needs to be tighter,” demonstrates Jeff on his own face. Thicker than a standard face mask, and with two ear loops, the Argaman mask has been accepted by the Hong Kong authorities as far more effective than the N95 respirator mask. Gabbay explains the difference: “This mask doesn’t filter; it’s a deactivation device that actually  kills bacteria and viruses.”

Argaman’s production line resembles a cross between an advanced factory and a chemicals workshop. On one side is some sophisticated-looking machinery, and on the other are rooms with dirty-looking chemicals that seem to get everywhere.

There’s a quality-control room where an engineer is testing button-shaped samples off the production line; a chemical formula room where a young chareidi man is mixing a new compound; and even an empty carpentry room. It’s like something out of Professor Branestawm, a comic I read as child.

“We build everything here on our own,” explains Jeff. “We’ve designed our own machinery, because the machines we need don’t exist anywhere in the world. They depend on a whole series of advances discovered in-house.”

But there’s another reason why things are kept close to home. “If I build a factory elsewhere,” he says, “it would be easy for someone to copy the design, or for some disgruntled local employee to walk off with the know-how.”

Unlikely as it sounds in grimy Talpiot, Argaman has been the target of industrial espionage, although Jeff won’t say much. “I see who comes to visit,” is all he’ll say. “But as long as we produce our materials here, you can’t reverse engineer them — the process is too complex.”

The heart of that process occurs in a machine that we’re not allowed to photograph, and which Jeff explains in broad terms. “Our primary work is the development of self-sterilizing textiles to reduce hospital-acquired infections. The textiles have been tested on RNA viruses like bird flu and swine flu, so it was easy to see the application for the current coronavirus,” he says.

“What we do is treat the cotton fiber so that we can infuse it with qualities that we want. For example, there are certain compounds that are bad for bacteria but benign for humans, but they won’t naturally attach themselves to the fiber. We use ultrasonic waves to do that.

“If successful,” says Gabbay, looking at a puddle of copper-colored water that has collected underneath, “the particles accelerate like a bullet and enter the fibers. We do target practice. The bullets are one micron across, compared to a hair, which is a hundred microns. What this does is it gives us a mechanical bond. So for the masks, we use a form of copper oxide, which kills all bacteria.”

Just a few feet away from the main machine is one that is spilling out a rusty-looking fiber. It’s soft to the touch, and it turns out to be the treated cotton, carded once again. After another cleaning process, the high-tech product is indistinguishable from its low-tech ancestor. It’s then turned into rolls of fabric, ready to be shipped out to health authorities worldwide.

So who are the customers? “We’ve sent three million to Hong Kong, with whom I had a business relationship,” says Gabbay. “The TAL Apparel Group, based there, is one of the world’s biggest clothing manufacturers, and they’ve invested in Argaman.

“Singapore wants it too, and the Spanish embassy was just in contact. We shipped some to Putin, and 2,000 to China’s President Xi.”

The world, in short, is beating a path to the well-disguised front door of Gabbay’s company.

While he’s not sure how long coronavirus will remain a concern, there are plenty of other uses for his innovation. Prime among them is combating hospital-acquired infections.

“The human body gives off a quarter of a million bacteria each minute. If they stay in the skin they die, but if they enter textiles, they incubate and double every 25 to 35 minutes. Our research shows that these enter hospitals through a bio-aerosol effect.

“Listen to a statistic,” says Gabbay. “Sixty percent of all employees in a hospital will have pathogens on their uniform after wearing them for one day. The horrible part is that six to seven percent will have MRSA, an antibiotic-resistant strain of streptococcus, and they go home wearing their uniforms and then put them in the washing machine, where the water is not hot enough to kill them.

“That’s where we come in. We are producing a textile that will kill them off.”

But this new technology has some hoops to jump through before it changes medicine. One is convincing authorities in the US that the fabrics really reduce hospital infections. “At an anecdotal level, our fabric has proven drastic reduction in infection levels, and now we have to test statistically significant numbers to establish that.” These trials cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, but there’s another problem.

“We have so many applications for this. We’ve produced fireproof cotton that simply doesn’t burn, which fire departments are interested in. We’ve got odor-resistant sheets for geriatric home care. We’re experimenting with sleep-inducing compounds in pillows.

“But,” Jeff puts it succinctly, “many want to be first to be second. The IDF won’t order until the US Army does, for example.”

But with deep-pocketed investors on board, Argaman isn’t waiting for approval to go ahead. They’re building one facility across the street in Talpiot, another in northern Israel, and one more factory in the Unites States for the North American market.

Fingering the soft fiber coming out of the carding machine’s conveyor belt, it’s hard to believe that this ordinary-looking thread is really a high-tech product. I’m reminded of the machinery on display in Manchester, UK’s textile museums, where they were first invented.

“You’re right, we’re using some of the same techniques,” he says “just with cotton, not wool.”

Back in his office, Jeff Gabbay looks cold and tired. “I get like this now, I’m on my third bout of cancer and in the middle of chemo. But baruch Hashem, it’s working.”

Four and a half years ago, he had his first operation to remove the cancer. He looks weary, but his face is strangely wrinkle free. “Yes, that’s thanks to another one of our fabrics that we’re talking to cosmetics companies about,” he says nonchalantly. “It reduces wrinkles.”

That battle with cancer has clearly taken its toll but has also given him a deeper perspective on what he’s doing.

“The search for a cure for hospital infections is the culmination of everything I’ve achieved,” he says. “There are very few people in my league in what I do. That’s not immodesty — a person has to know what he’s capable of. I’ve never worked for money. The military products were for the purpose of saving lives, and this is what I’m trying to do now.”

That sense of mission has enabled Jeff to offer a helping hand more directly as well. “I hire chareidim without qualifications and train them,” he says. “They come by word of mouth. And in the facility we’re building across the road I’d like to be able to employ handicapped people where possible.”

Jeff fingers the mask on his desk. “Tech is brains,” he says. “If ten percent of all the ideas that Israel produces were expanded locally, instead of shipping them overseas, Israel could be an advanced manufacturing power, like it is in software. Yes, there’s a cost, but we have to help others.”

Dusk is falling over Talpiot, and the garages are winding up for the night as Gabbay heads home for his next chemotherapy session. Outside Argaman, a man stops his car and asks where he can buy one of the miracle masks for a daughter who is flying abroad that night.

Having given away $25,000 worth of masks to chemotherapy patients, Jeff Gabbay’s response bears the simple ring of truth: “I wish I could help,” he says, “but there’s not a single one left.”

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 800)

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