In a post-pandemic future, after cleaning a hotel room, a member of the housekeeping staff moves his cart to the next room. Then he pushes a button on the tall, sleek device behind him, which then goes into action, disinfecting surfaces with intense ultraviolet light while the housekeeper cleans the room next door.
That’s the vision of the cofounders of R-Zero Systems, a San Jose-based company that aims to bring hospital-grade disinfection to businesses like hotels and restaurants.
“The vision that’s compelling to us in thinking about this business is the opportunity to create safer environments,” says cofounder Grant Morgan, who’s previously designed medical devises at Abbott and was a founding team member at iCracked.
The company came together (in a socially distanced way) in at the start of the pandemic in February, as cofounder Ben Boyer, a venture capitalist cofounder of VC firm Tenaya Capital began to see reports out of China and its impact on his portfolio companies such as Lyft.
Recalling how major events such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks led to new market demands for something such as Palantir, Boyer and Morgan (who’d previously known each other because Boyer was on iCracked’s board) began to explore ideas where they could bring their skills to bear for immediate impact. “I’ve had a long enough VC career to have gone through a couple of market dislocations,” he says.
That led them to think about how hospitals can, on a day to day basis, do business while doing their best to minimize the spread of disease. “If hospitals can figure it out, other businesses can, too,” says Boyer.
Doing their market research, there were two things the cofounders honed in on: 1. the frequency of handwashing and sanitizing employed in hospitals and 2. the use of ultraviolet-C (UV-C) light for disinfection by hospitals. It was during that research they were introduced to Dr. Richard Wade, a public health expert who specializes in disinfection protocols.
Hospitals that have employed the use of UV-C light have seen results. Multiple randomized controlled studies have found that its use leads to a decrease in hospital-acquired infections. Several preliminary studies have also found that it can lead to an inactivation of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes Covid-19. Though the light by itself isn’t enough, combined with thorough cleaning protocols it’s more effective than either cleaning or UV-C by themselves.
Initially, the cofounders had an idea to build a service-based business to install ultraviolet lights for disinfection in non-hospital settings. They soon discovered, however, that existing UV light systems on the market were incredibly expensive, with prices ranging from $60,000 to $120,000. After studying the engineering and cost of materials, and bringing on board the third cofounder, Forbes Under 30 alumnus Eli Harris, they decided to shift gears and build their own systems instead.
“The pricing today is an artifact of our healthcare system and how inefficient it is,” says Boyer. “It has nothing to do with the cost of build and materials.”
At that point, the team realized it could move into spaces where the cost of UV-C systems had previously been prohibitive, such as restaurants, hotels and schools. “The level of engagement we’re getting with large school districts is tremendous,” says Boyer.
The company’s done so with two main products: a touchless hand sanitizer dispenser, with connectivity capability to ensure buildings know when to replace product; and a mobile UV-C unit to disinfect rooms. Those UV-C units are designed with simple operation in mind, and can disinfect a 1,000 square foot space in about 7 minutes. The hand sanitizer dispenser also features a thermal sensor, which can be used to determine if someone might have a fever.
But the company offers more than just the products. In conjunction with Dr. Wade, it will also be offering specific actionable, specific protocols for its customers, ensuring they can use those products in compliance with local regulations as well as their own unique needs. That’s followed up with a mobile app featuring analytics on product use.
The company has already built products for customers as part of a beta testing process and secured manufacturing facilities in San Jose. The cofounders plan to have the products independently tested this month for efficacy, as the FDA doesn’t require approval for UV-C devices.
Next up is signing more deals, turning beta customers into ongoing customers and scaling up manufacturing to the point where products can start to be shipped on a bigger scale. Not bad for a company that incorporated in April. “In four months we’ve designed, developed and manufactured,” says Boyer.
R-Zero’s cofounders also see an opportunity to keep its business moving well beyond the current pandemic, because UV-C light disinfects a wide variety of diseases.
“We can reduce sick days in schools, in the corporate office spaces, and make people feel really good about going back to work and going back to school,” says Morgan. “Alleviating the mental scar tissue after the year or more that we’re going to have to live with this thing.”