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John Putman of Nanotronics: “Food insecurity”

I can only say that I imagine people to be heroes based on what we see publicly about them. The policeman who rushes into a burning automobile to pull a passenger to safety or a civil rights advocates that gives up their own freedom for the future freedom of others; healthcare workers who face the […]

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I can only say that I imagine people to be heroes based on what we see publicly about them. The policeman who rushes into a burning automobile to pull a passenger to safety or a civil rights advocates that gives up their own freedom for the future freedom of others; healthcare workers who face the suffering and death of their patients without regard to their own health and safety — these people are the heroes that I see.


As part of my series about people who stepped up to make a difference during the COVID19 Pandemic, I had the pleasure of interviewing John Putman.

Throughout a 40-year career, John Putman has been both a successful entrepreneur and inventor. He was the second employee at an independent polymer testing Lab, ARDL, which remains an industry leader. In his early twenties he started Polymerics, for which he invented the rubber chemical dispersion, PolyGel, which is a common component in rubber compounds. During Mr. Putman’s time at Monsanto, he was the engineering specialist for ROW (Rest of World), training customers throughout the world. In 1982 he co-founded Tech Pro, Inc. for which he was able to provide the first data acquisition systems in his industry. He continued to lead the development team and co-authored numerous patents. Tech Pro was acquired by Roper Industries in 2008. He has remained focused on research, having authored technical papers and presented at educational symposia. He was the director of the American Chemical Society Rubber Division Educational Committee. He was profiled for the book “Wheel of Fortune”, Rubber and Plastics News and the Washington Post. He earned his BS in Mathematics from the University of Akron.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how and where you grew up?

I grew up in northeast Ohio. My mother was a stay-at-home mom until I was in high school and my father was a lifelong employee (in accounting) at the BF Goodrich Tire Company. The Akron area was very much an industrial town with nearly everyone somehow related to the tire industry. My Mother gave me the confidence to do or try anything. My Father was a textbook businessman where work was all consuming and family time was limited. My Father allowed me the time to explore in building and tearing apart anything we had. One summer when I was about 12, I wanted to build a mini-bike. I walked to the junk yard, got an old bike frame, and tore our lawn mower apart for the gasoline engine. He did not notice the project for several days until I was nearly finished, and he needed to mow the yard. He looked at the mini-bike, really didn’t say much, and grabbed the rusty old push mower to the mow the grass. My Mother gave me the confidence to embark on the project and my Father allowed me, or at least didn’t stop me, from completing it. I am so grateful to my parents for giving me confidence and the freedom to explore.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Most people I know have some great book about philosophy, a good biography or other well-known influential book to mention. When I was young I read mysteries and “who done it books” and bought the magazines Popular Mechanics (all issues that I could) and Popular Science (issues that had articles that interested me). A “not so adult “ series of books that I loved in young adulthood was CS Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. They were full of adventure, imagination and going into the unknown with a strong sense of purpose and kindness. The idea that life could be an adventure (and is) along with a sense of purpose and kindness stays with me.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

“That’s impossible!” OK, I know that isn’t exactly the kind of quote that you were asking for and maybe Edison’s comment about the lightbulb filament sounds better — “I have not failed. I have found 10,000 that wont work”. Somehow, they are the same in my mind. I like it when I am told that something is impossible or can’t be done. That phrase can give me ‘think’ and ‘dream’ time. That’s the time where I don’t do anything about the impossible but just think it over. This “think time” is my favorite because in my mind, all things are possible. I can both put myself to sleep thinking of the problem and at the same time keep myself awake dreaming about it. It really is the best. After think time it is action time. I am lucky that I have always worked with people way more talented than I so the things I couldn’t do, a friend or co-worker could. Finally, there is finish time. Not all projects are fully successful, and some are outright failures. The think and action times are still almost always good. For the successful projects, the conclusion is exciting. Not all impossible projects are important and really not all impossible projects are even hard. They are a great puzzle — fun to work on and even better if completed.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. You are currently leading an organization that has stepped up during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to address?

Nanotronics is a company filled with the extremely talented people that I mentioned. The company has mechanical, electrical, electronic and software engineers, artists, mathematicians and industrial designers. In early March of 2020 when the COVID 19 pandemic was in its infancy a friend mentioned and predicted that a huge number of people would be suffering respiratory destress due to the virus. It was suggested that a positive airway pressure device could relieve some of this distress until a patient could receive additional medical care or until they recovered. This treatment was proved out in the early crisis in Italy. The difficulty was threefold: having a large enough supply of devices to meet the expected need; having a device that was simple to use and deploy; and having a device that was affordable. Our goal was to produce a Non-Invasive-Ventilator that could meet these criteria to serve the critically ill community. We were looking for ways to supply these through not-for-profit organizations or at prices low enough that they could be universally available.

I began the development project in my garage with wood, PVC water pipe and supplies received overnight from Amazon. I was lucky that I could divert my time and effort toward this. Within 2 weeks, I had a proof of concept and was able to work remotely with our team to finalize the design. We had our working device, the nHale, built and tested within the next 4 weeks and applied for Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) from the FDA. At nearly 3 months to the day, we received our EUA and were able to begin distributing in the United States and worldwide. This was not an impossible project nor was it particularly difficult. It did require hyper focus and an extremely talented and creative design team to make the device medically safe, simple to use, low cost and bring it to the point of the EUA in 3 months.

In your opinion or experience, what are a few characteristics of a hero? Please share a story or example for each.

I do not think that the term hero applies to me so the comments here are more general. Heroes come from times and situations that are often spontaneously occurring. If a person has a passion and urgency for helping people, then they have purpose. These three characteristics are what provide the impetus to act: passion, urgency and purpose. Of course, talent, skills, access to resources are needed. There are individual heroes such as a stranger who steps in to pull a child from a subway track, but many acts of heroism that are more collaboration and institutional. A fireman studies and trains for a life of service. They have purpose, passion and a sense of urgency. An individual fireman may stand out as a hero, but they are there at the calling of their profession, the support of their peers and the training of their mentors.

If heroism is rooted in doing something difficult, scary, or even self-sacrificing, what do you think drives some people — ordinary people — to become heroes?

I would say that there are true heroes — people who sacrifice everything for the good of others. People who put others before themselves. Selflessness would be a common trait that I think moves a person to be heroic.

What was the specific catalyst for you or your organization to take heroic action? At what point did you personally decide that heroic action needed to be taken?

Two things catapulted us into action — the knowledge that a positive airway pressure device could help those with respiratory difficultly and the fact that my son, Matthew, who is the CEO and co-founder of the company, had an early case of COVID 19. We had already started thinking about the device when I saw firsthand the struggle breathing and pain that my son was having. At that point I knew that I had to do something to help others and to do it quickly.

Who are your heroes, or who do you see as heroes today?

I can only say that I imagine people to be heroes based on what we see publicly about them. The policeman who rushes into a burning automobile to pull a passenger to safety or a civil rights advocates that gives up their own freedom for the future freedom of others; healthcare workers who face the suffering and death of their patients without regard to their own health and safety — these people are the heroes that I see.

I believe that beyond heroism as I define it, there is a tremendous amount of good that can be done just because people are good. Sharing our bounty (a funny old way to say it) is so important. I remember stories about my parents, aunts and uncles during the Great Depression. When food was in short supply they spoke about giving an apple or a portion of whatever they had to a stranger in need. My cousin told me about a homeless person during that time asking for a “handout”. His father, my uncle, opened his purse which contained pennies, nickels and dimes adding up to less than 50 cents. The story told is that he held out his purse for the homeless person to take as was needed — he took 5 cents. I wish I could be as kind and generous as he.

Let’s talk a bit about what is happening in the world today. What specifically frightened or frightens you most about the pandemic?

I am a positive person and am generally hopeful. However, I am saddened by the loss of life, obviously, the suffering and the unknown future effects of the virus. I am saddened by the losses that even healthy people are experiencing — the loss of home and belongings. This may be the first time that people have food insecurities (they are hungry or starving — “food insecurities”, please!), the first time that people felt without hope in their lives. I am saddened that often the people that suffer the most are the ones who can least afford it — restaurant workers, household workers, teachers, teacher assistants and many, many more.

Just as “food insecurity” is a euphemism for “starving”, perhaps “saddened” is a euphemism for “depressed”. If am indeed depressed I must also recognize the larger population is depressed and without hope. That is frightening!

Despite that, what gives you hope for the future? Can you explain?

I see hope in that so many people are volunteering and giving. Time, money, resources which are often in short supply are being shared. I see that human kindness is still alive and thriving.

I also see hope in our collective ability to adapt. This has been a difficult year but as a world people we have invented, adapted and accommodated during difficult times.

What permanent societal changes would you like to see come out of this crisis?

It would be wonderful if we could see those things for which we are fortunate and not dwell on the unimportant. We can be fortunate with less and we can give back even when we have little (just see my uncle). Sacrifice is not a popular word but if replace the word “sacrifice” with “share” we all benefit. Small acts of sharing can accumulate to bring comfort both in these extraordinary times and in the ordinary times to come.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

(Yikes, if only I were young). I would say “Listen more than talk”. This equally applies to me.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

I have very little influence and movements sometimes take a life of their own and lose meaning. There have been things like “pay it forward” — I like that. I would like to see all of us look at each other daily and see and think positively about the other person. We don’t even need to do something at first. If we think the best of people our actions will follow.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why?

I love every minute that I can spend with my family and would take a private breakfast with them anytime over all others.

How can our readers follow you online?

I am not very active online but have a LinkedIn Page.

Readers can see stay up-to-date on Nanotronics Health and our parent company, Nanotronics, by visiting our respective websites, and by following us on Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

My son, Matthew Putman, CEO of Nanotronics, also has a podcast called Utility + Function, where he interviews people making an impact on our community (among others), which is very important to us as a brand.

Several of our team members can also be followed on the drop-in audio chat app, Clubhouse.

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