Nearly two years after the COVID pandemic began, we are now gaining control over the deadly virus that upended the entire world as we know it. The catastrophic loss of lives and global economic devastation provided a harrowing reminder of how vulnerable we are, and the inadequacy of our ability as humans to protect ourselves in our own natural habitat: indoor spaces.
But as the pandemic comes to an end, the same problems that got us to this place still exist. Manual disinfection with chemicals is still considered “state of the art.” We have done little to improve the quality of the air we breathe 18,000 times per day. We also remain vulnerable to the seasonal flu, common cold, norovirus, MRSA, and even the next pandemic. If we continue neglecting the health of the buildings where we live, work, learn, and play, we will have squandered a once-in-a-generation opportunity (and even obligation) to build a safer, healthier, more productive “normal” – and we will have done so at the expense of human health.
Innovating to improve the health of our natural habitat – indoor spaces – is the most important and pressing human health challenge of our generation.
Part 1: The Problem
Fact: humans are an indoor species. We spend 90% of our lives indoors, so by the time we are 80 (roughly the average life expectancy in the U.S.), we will have spent a total of 72 years indoors. The implications of this reality are huge: indoor spaces have a massive impact on our overall health.
Despite the universal importance of human health, and the inextricable link between the health of indoor environments and the health of the humans who occupy them, we have objectively failed at creating solutions that actually work to keep us safe. In fact, the spaces where we spend the vast majority of our lives actually make us sick.
Data from the CDC provides overwhelming evidence: even before COVID, 40m Americans got the flu every year, resulting in nearly 50,000 deaths annually. Somehow, we’ve just accepted that’s normal. Adults in the U.S. get the common cold on average 3x per year, and children at least 6-8x per year. There are up to 21m cases of norovirus (stomach flu) annually, 1.5m emergency room visits for pneumonia, and MRSA (staph) kills more people annually than Parkinson’s, emphysema, AIDS, and murder combined.
If we examine how we currently combat the spread of these common infectious diseases, it’s no wonder that we are failing. The current “state-of-the-art” is to wash our hands and douse surfaces with chemicals then wipe them down – but these are the same preventative measures that we used to fight the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic.
In the 100 years since the Spanish Flu pandemic, we’ve sent humans to the moon, invented the internet, seen the proliferation of self-driving cars, and created rockets that can reach outer space before landing on an autonomous drone boat in the middle of the ocean. Yet we are still using the same archaic chemicals to fight COVID today in 2021.
We collectively bear the responsibility, and even the obligation, to do better.
Part 2: The Case for Investing in Healthy Buildings
On the surface, the benefits of creating and maintaining healthy indoor environments seem to be altruistic: improving health, and therefore quality of life, for others is something we can all agree is a good thing. However, there is significant value creation, financial and otherwise, for virtually any organization that invests in healthy building infrastructure.
In aggregate, poor health costs U.S. employers an estimated $575B (billion with a B) in 2019, due to direct and indirect healthcare related costs, and lost productivity.
Reducing sick days generates a significant ROI for any organization. Take two examples of very different types of organizations: a Fortune 500 enterprise and a public school district.
Example 1 – Business / F500 Enterprise
Increased employee productivity. When an employee is sick, they’re not being productive. In some cases, employers must hire staff to backfill, which incurs direct costs, as well as administrative overhead. For some industries like banking, tech, professional services like law firms, or other particularly high-paying industries, the opportunity cost is even greater and can amount to thousands of dollars per day. Employees are not only the most valuable asset to a company, but also the most expensive. Companies spend tens of millions of dollars optimizing operating costs or energy consumption, which may account for 5-10% of a company’s overall spend, but a much better investment with a much larger lever would be investing in the health and productivity of employees.
Reduced health insurance premiums. The average cost of health insurance for family coverage is almost $22,000 per year, and that cost is rising 7% – 9% annually. Employers and underwriters often incentivize employees with gym stipends and smoking cessation programs. The motivations may be altruistic in part, but the primary driver for these programs is reducing health insurance premiums. Creating a safe and healthy work environment and reducing employee sick days impacts direct and indirect healthcare-related costs, reduces the risk profile of an organization’s employee base, and ultimately lowers premiums. A very public example of the inverse of this effect is Delta Airlines. Delta employees who are not vaccinated against COVID are charged an additional $200/month for health insurance due to the increase in risk and corresponding increase in cost for treatment.
There are several other material benefits, like employee engagement, retention, peace of mind, and performance (healthy buildings actually make employees perform better across 9 cognitive domains), but I won’t belabor the point.
Example 2 – Education / Public School District
Increased funding; reduced costs. Most school districts are funded based on student attendance, about $30 – $50 / day. The largest school districts in the nation can lose out on nearly $100m in annual funding due to student sick days and absenteeism. Additionally, when a teacher misses school, the district must hire a substitute teacher, which costs between $105 – $190 / day, and can cost larger districts $15m – $20m per year. That doesn’t take into account the fact that many larger school districts underwrite their own health insurance, which would incur additional cost.
Improved student performance and quality of education. When a student misses school because they’re sick, the quality of learning declines significantly. A teacher missing school has the same effect, but on the whole class. In fact, a single year of missing 10+ days of school in grades 8-12 increases the likelihood of a student dropping out 7x. Student performance also impacts test scores, which affects funding. You would be hard pressed to find an educator who disagrees with the idea that keeping students and teachers healthy and in the classroom leads to improved quality of education.
The same principles apply to virtually any type of organization. Fundamentally, the value creation stems from two outcomes of healthy buildings: improved human health through reduced sick days and improved performance. The altruistic case for investing in safer indoor environments is non-controversial, but the economic case is rock solid too.
Part 3: Introducing the World’s First Continuous, Autonomous Disinfection Ecosystem
R-Zero was born out of the pandemic and built to meet this moment. We exist to reduce the spread of infectious disease and fundamentally change the way that we think about how we keep people safe in indoor spaces. Today, we are launching several novel products that represent the convergence of science, medicine, and technology and will enable organizations of all shapes and sizes to improve the health and safety of their indoor environment, and consequently, improve the health of the people that they serve.
We’ve combined hospital-grade disinfection with modern technologies to create an ecosystem that works continuously and automatically to disinfect air and surfaces in real time.
Here’s a closer look at the components of the ecosystem that we’ve launched today:
- Advanced Risk Modeling – For the first time ever, we’ve applied advanced data science and machine learning to infection prevention and created a predictive model that can quantify risk in real time, and activate the disinfection products installed in a space to mitigate risk in the air, and on surfaces. Our model is based on mathematical representation of the physics and epidemiology that define how diseases are spread. Our sensors collect data about how a space is being used – how people interact, where population density is high, the physical characteristics of a space, and more… – and those data become inputs to the model which can predict the risk of 1 or more people in the space getting sick under these real-world conditions. The result is the most sophisticated approach to infection prevention that has ever existed.
- Beam – The world’s first LED-powered upper room UVGI system (the same class of product recommended by the CDC, WHO, ASHRAE and more). Beam creates a …beam… of UV-C light across the top of the room where people don’t interact with it, and leverages natural convective currents to disinfect large volumes of air in occupied spaces. When occupants breathe, that air is hot and naturally rises into the beam of UV-C light where it is disinfected, and by the time it cools and comes back down to the room it’s safe to breathe. Beam is unequivocally the most powerful product of its kind on the market, and can add 12+ ACH to any room without augmenting the central HVAC system – it brings air disinfection into the room, where infections occur.
- Vive – Filtered far-UV that performs continuous air and surface disinfection in occupied rooms. Vive produces 222nm UV-C light called “far-UV” that cannot penetrate the top layer of skin or the tear layer of the eye, and therefore is safe for human exposure. In fact, Vive is so safe that 10 minutes of exposure to sun on a mild spring day produces more DNA damage than 30,000 hours of exposure to Vive. This technology is absolutely game changing – it’s the first ever air disinfection or filtration mechanism that can disinfect air without having to physically move it through a central HVAC system or portable HEPA filter in the room. So as soon as a sick person breathes contaminated air, that air is being disinfected in real time, and by the time anyone else in the room interacts with it, the pathogenic load, and therefore the risk, is substantially lower. I truly believe that when we look back in 25 years we will consider far-UV one of the most consequential medical discoveries of our lifetime.
All of these new products are tied together with R-Zero Connect software that enables facilities managers to monitor usage and manage assets from anywhere in the world. And of course, these new products work in concert with our flagship product, Arc, to create a new standard for disinfection for any indoor space.
We developed a suite of products to form a holistic solution that can address various use cases and form factors, and ultimately combine to form a custom solution tailored to any indoor space. Put differently, we can now walk into any physical space, collect some basic information about the building characteristics and usage, and design a custom solution that maximizes risk reduction in that specific space. The end result is unprecedented efficacy that produces monumentally better health outcomes for the people who occupy the space.
Part 4: The Future / Moving Forward
As of today, more than 5 million people have died from COVID worldwide. Shame on us if we let them die in vain. We must emerge from this pandemic better, stronger, and healthier than ever before. We must invest in human health by protecting our natural habitat – indoor spaces.
My sincere hope is that technologies like ours become ubiquitous and baked into the infrastructure of the built environment in all of the places where we live, work, play, and learn. All organizations stand to gain from improving the health and safety of the physical spaces they own and manage, and we as a society will be better for it, too.
We see a world where attendance is up, and sick days are down; a world where trains, buses, and planes are no longer metal tubes ripe for infection. In the world we see, schools are no longer considered petri dishes, and the office is a place where we share ideas, not communicable diseases. Today, with the launch of our new products and the introduction of our platform, R-Zero marks the beginning of a new era.
There is a paradigm shift happening. Ignore it at your peril.
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