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Innovating to Better Serve People and Our Planet

By Ben Boyer, Executive Chairman and Co-Founder, R-Zero

Since co-founding Tenaya Capital in 2009, I’ve had the opportunity to invest in startups like Qunar, Eventbrite, and Lyft — companies that have transformed entire sectors and with them, our daily lives.

But as I entered my 40s and began to think more about my impact on the world, the “disruptor” label lost some of its luster. Yes, many of the companies I’ve worked with also bring societal benefits; ride-sharing can reduce GHG emissions or help increase access to transportation in areas with poor public transit. But for most conventional entrepreneurs , compared to mission-driven entrepreneurs,, these social and environmental benefits are secondary, a side effect or an afterthought to their core goals to ‘win’ a market for financial gain.

As I was figuring out a path forward, the pandemic hit, disrupting nearly every industry and forcing society to question the health risks it had long deemed acceptable, as well as the stark inequities in the ways those risks are distributed. This period of rapid change, shifting perspectives, and exposed disparities has created more awareness for the need for sustainability, resiliency, and equity across a broad range of sectors, and one sector in particular..

The disinfection industry has not changed over the past hundred years in any meaningful way. The traditional industry relies on toxic chemicals that  are harmful to people and the planet, prone to error, and inefficient.

So, my co-founders and I asked ourselves: If 2020 was to be a year of upending the status quo, then what should a disinfection industry — that is actually built on a foundation of innovation and sustainability — look like in 2021 and beyond?

What would it look like to bring true innovation to this sleepy, hundred-plus year-old, sector? How could we measure and manage disinfection with the same level of sophistication and technology that is standard in other industries, but has proved so elusive for this industry? What would it mean if we could actually offer best-in-class hospital-grade solutions, but at an affordable price point, so as to truly democratize access to disinfection, protection and safety? That is when we decided to build R-Zero — the first modern, biosafety company built on a platform of modern tools like data science, AI and machine learning, and IoT connected devices.

As we were prioritizing our first product, we knew that the gold-standard disinfection method used by hospitals since the 1940s was UV-C light disinfection. This method is not only much more effective than chemical disinfection, but also faster and safer, leaving behind no toxic byproducts or residue. The problem was affordability: The legacy companies were selling their units to hospitals with six-figure price tags. 

When we founded R-Zero, we resolved to make a better disinfection product at a fraction of the price so more organizations could access this superior tech – including public schools, medical offices and hospitals, senior care living, hotels, correctional facilities, and so many more  –  and we did with Arc, R-Zero’s flagship mobile UV-C disinfection device. Arc is manufactured and sold at  a fraction of the cost of competing products and democratizes access to hospital-grade quality disinfection. It’s also the first device of its kind designed with the consumer in mind. Arc combines a simple user-interface with a software audit trail so organizations can track disinfection activity down to the second.

But R-Zero is more than a single UV-C disinfection device, and it’s more than an opportunity to reverse and recover from a pandemic. Rather, it’s an opportunity to leverage new technologies to fundamentally rethink and advance how humanity approaches public health risks in the built environment, from COVID-19 to the common cold.

Our mission is to fundamentally change how we understand, and act on, health risks in physical spaces. 

The encroaching threats of climate change, disease, and rising inequality mean that there’s an urgency to invest for the benefit of all stakeholders. Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) metrics provide transparency in how a company performs as a steward of the environment, its employees, and society at-large. 

The best companies today optimize both financial performance and social and environmental outcomes. Those companies perform well in the capital markets and rate highly from an ESG perspective. 75% of ESG indices outperformed their broad market equivalents in 2020. These companies do not sacrifice on financial performance in order to have an environmental or social impact. In fact, the opposite is true: these are better performing companies with better performing products that are also better for people and the planet. Just like R-Zero’s products.

R-Zero is a mission-driven company at its core – the “ESG” and public health benefits – are in the DNA of R-Zero. As we grew our company, we knew we wanted to team up with one of the world’s leading Impact VC firmsDBL Partners. DBL, like R-Zero, believes that financial performance and the second bottom line (social, environmental, and economic impacts) are inherently linked. As a former VC, I have signed dozens of term sheets in my career. The favorite term I have ever signed my name to was DBL’s “Second Bottom Line” letter, which outlines the pledge we took on investment to uphold impact practices, such as environmental stewardship and diversity hiring programs. 

While we’re building a more robust and clearer pathway forward on all these fronts as we speak, just after two quarters of sales activity, here’s where we are making headway as a company so far when it comes to our ESG footprint: 

  1. Environment: Arc is displacing hundreds of thousands of gallons of toxic chemicals, waste, plastic, and packaging, which not only harm human health, but also contribute to ecological disruption and carbon emissions – and we’ve engaged with a credible, industry leading third-party to validate these results and ultimately create a sustainability calculator. This calculator will help us, and our customers, know exactly how many gallons of chemicals as tons of waste, plastic, and packaging, we are displacing. We’re also keeping our own carbon footprint in check, too. R-Zero’s Arc is manufactured in the United States close to many of R-Zero’s customers, reducing delivery transportation GHG emissions. R-Zero has implemented a UV-C bulb recycling program to further limit our environmental impact.
  2. Social: R-Zero is increasing access to a hospital-grade disinfection solution, allowing small businesses, schools, shelters, and communities that are not able to access these traditionally more expensive products, to experience a more equitable recovery — and to continue safeguarding health in the post-pandemic world. For example, many of R-Zero’s customers are located in underserved communities. We also decided to build our headquarters in a low-to-moderate-income (LMI) area that will create new job opportunities in an underserved community and support local businesses.
  3. Governance: R-Zero is committed to ensuring our employees are paid equitably and fairly, and receive comprehensive benefits. As we grow, we’re committed to an inclusive and representative structure, across the entire company. 

Of course, this is just the beginning. As we introduce new disinfection technologies and further refine our operations, our impact will grow — and with it, our value to society. 

Notably, that impact doesn’t lie in better products alone. It lies in defining a new way of understanding and acting on health risks indoors — a way that is more effective, more equitable, and more sustainable than the status quo.

Because if the pandemic has taught us one thing, it’s that we shouldn’t let inertia blindly guide us.

The traditional way isn’t always the best way. Beyond new products, we need new systems that better serve both people and planet.

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