Denver Design Company Alt Ethos Aids COVID-19 Research

Alt Ethos: Experiential Design Studio designed an installation for Denver street-art festival Crush Walls.
Alt Ethos: Experiential Design Studio designed an installation for Denver street-art festival Crush Walls. Eon247
Greeley had a problem. People weren’t using a pedestrian walkway.

Alt Ethos: Experiential Design Studio offered a solution: The company designed and installed a musical hopscotch system.

“Now as people walk through the tunnel, they see visual designs that are on the ground,” Alt Ethos CEO Ethan Bach says. “As you move over the designs, you create electro-swing music. We like to do things that are unexpected and get people to collaborate, work together and create art together.”

Among other projects, the Denver company has also constructed an environmental lighting installation at Vail’s Winterfest, an installation at Denver’s street-art festival Crush Walls, and a singing tree that melds lights and music at an Anythink Library location.

“Everyone gets to be a creator,” Bach says. “The thing I really like about what we do is that people meet other people while they are doing it, so it builds community.”

Of course, with everyone confined to their homes because of the COVID-19 pandemic, much of Alt Ethos's outdoor work is on hold for the time being — so the group came up with an indoor project.

“We watched everything unfold as businesses were closed and friends and colleagues lost their jobs,” Bach says in an announcement of [email protected], a new app that's aiding scientists in their coronavirus research. “Our clients were some of the hardest hit. Never had I witnessed such an unfolding of our society. We were in shock as the world went on pause. We wanted to help.”

Alt Ethos uses powerful computers in its work, and it's offering those computers for [email protected], which is operated out of Washington University, a private research school in St. Louis. The application allows people to run protein simulations on their personal computers, measuring how proteins "fold" and gain their three-dimensional structure. Proteins perform many functions in nature, everything from muscle contractions to building blocks of hair. Viruses also have protein chains that help them suppress a host's immune system and replicate. Understanding how proteins are structured can help scientists learn how they function.

Thousands of computers being used in tandem around the world speeds up the process — forming a supercomputer — and can help scientists find a cure or treatment for the disease that currently has the world in its grip. 

“We’ve been looking for some way that we could participate in fighting the coronavirus,” Bach says. “So we were on board to set up our network.”

The program is also used to research a variety of diseases, including breast cancer, Alzheimer's, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s, according to [email protected]

“Right now the big project is obviously COVID-19,” says Alt Ethos producer Erin O’Brien. “It’s doing analysis on the proteins. … When you see a picture of the virus, there are three proteins, part of little spikes all over the virus. By figuring out how they fit together and how they open up to attach to our cells, they can develop new treatments.”

Because of coronavirus's impact on the economy, Alt Ethos is also making some changes to its regular work. It's currently coming up with ways to allow those drab and boxy Zoom meetings to incorporate virtual-reality elements. That's an innovation it believes will carry on beyond the coronavirus disaster, because virtual meetings are here to stay; one day, a convention that was normally held in Las Vegas could be totally online but just as engaging for participants, the company says.

"It's always nice to show people what we do when we're not all hunkered down," Bach says. "But it's been  interesting, because it's challenged us, because we were designers, so we're always solving problems."

While the company will eventually resume its normal operations, O’Brien says that it's also likely to continue to help with folding projects when computers aren’t being used for routine business.

“We’ll keep fighting the good fight,” she says.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.