In 2011, Philip Caban was diagnosed with early stage prostate cancer and was fortunate to be in remission only nine months later. While his immune system was still compromised, the 30-year-old man contracted a staph infection that nearly took his life. There was little doubt about its origin, which meant he had an opportunity to sue, if he wanted. “The nurse handled her ringing phone,” Philip Caban told HealthCentral by phone. Rather than suing, though, the Queens resident took a less self-serving course.
“I wanted to solve the problem, so I decided to invent an antimicrobial smartphone case,” Philip says. He also wanted to advocate for his nurse. “It wasn’t part of her protocol, because the doctors didn’t include nurses in their procedures. She really cared about her patients,” Philip says. “She did things like bringing in home-cooked food and stayed late to talk us through.” Caban allowed her (and the hospital) to remain anonymous for fear that she would still lose her job.
Over the next seven months after recovering, he orchestrated his exit from the hotel management industry and learned more about how easily infections can become a deadly. “I got a staph infection that grows where there’s many samples of feces,” Philip says. “This can easily happen when you put your phone on the bathroom sink.” A 2011 study by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and Queen Mary backs Caban’s assertion. Researchers found that 92 percent of the phones had bacteria present and 16 percent contained E. coli.
As the Oswego grad was looking to make his sterile smartphone case, he drew upon his knowledge of antiquity. “The Romans used gold, bronze, and silver carafes to distill water,” Philip says of the first forms of antimicrobial protection. Fortunately, the Canarsie-born New Yorker found a cheaper alternative, using zinc, to create the polymer and found a research firm to help produce it.
Eight months later, the hard science was seemingly over, but aesthetics proved to be an unexpected challenge. “What took another eight months was getting the color to stay,” says Philip. “It would become brown like an overripe apple. It’s wasn't dirty, it was oxidizing.” Shaking off the previous iterations, the scientists eventually went back to back to the drawing board.
Black, blue, light blue, neon green, and red replaced the dreary shades of gray, but getting the drop on the market was still a distant light at the end of the tunnel. “It’s incredibly difficult to compete with the big guys,” Philip says. These include larger firms that already have antimicrobial products like computer mouses and keyboards.
The phone cases, which also provide sound amplification and drop protection, are in about 70 retail stores. However, Caban’s biggest success has been with Hackensack Medical Center. “We’re using Hackensack as our main connection to the healthcare industry,” Philip says. “Hospitals buy supplies as a pool, and you have to get in front of those decision makers”. This was the case for Hackensack but other administrators are not so readily available.
He has no plans of giving up, though. “You have to have the guts to stay the course, and look the big boys in the face and say, ‘I can do this as long as you can,’” Philip concludes.