On Tuesday, R-Zero, a pandemic-era biosecurity company, announced the acquisition of CoWorkr, a company that develops room occupancy sensors. The acquisition marks a shift in focus for R-Zero as people return to work, vaccines are deployed, and businesses that have sprung up in response to COVID-19 adapt to another phase of the pandemic.
When R-Zero was founded in April 2020, the company mainly focused on developing hospital grade UVC disinfection systems, or lamps capable of neutralizing certain types of viruses (more on this later). As companies searched for ways to sanitize buildings, the company racked up total funding of $ 58.8 million for a valuation of $ 256.5 million. R-Zero now has approximately 1,000 private and public sector clients, ranging from prisons to the Brooklyn Nets and Boston Celtics, to the South San Francisco Unified School District.
CoWorkr was founded in 2014 and had totaled approximately $ 200,000 in seed funding, by Crunchbase.
With the acquisition of CoWorkr, R-Zero plans to develop an Internet of Things-like sensor network to manage both personnel and cleaning in the workplace, said R-Zero founder Grant Morgan. The company goes beyond the simple disinfection of air and surfaces, and will focus on managing the flow of people (and viruses and bacteria) in public spaces.
“It’s like an operating system for the workplace. That’s what we build: tools that help both create and maintain indoor environments focused on health and productivity, ”Morgan told TechCrunch.
Elizabeth Redmond and Keenan May, both co-founders of CoWorkr, will retain full-time positions, where they will lead a corporate real estate initiative and develop IoT capability.
“We have spent a lot of time with our clients and understanding our clients’ initiatives, particularly in commercial real estate,” Redmond told TechCrunch.
“The majority of them switch to a hybrid work scenario and that means you know they really need occupation information,” she continues. “Our initiative to join R-Zero is very evident in the future of hybrid work and the future of commercial real estate. “
Pre-CoWorkr, R-Zero’s flagship product was a UVC lamp called Arc – a rectangular lamp that can be routed into an office after the concierge staff left the office. He also came up with a product called Arc Air, an air filter that also uses UVC light to kill germs, and could be used in occupied spaces.
UVC lights enjoyed a brief moment of glory in mid-2020 for several reasons: They appeared to be powerful means of sanitizing common spaces, and there were certain incentives for businesses to apply technological solutions to COVID-19.
UVC lamps have been used in hospitals for decades to disinfect surfaces like scanners, or to disinfect the air when inserted into UV air ducts. Studies have shown that it can inactivate flu virus in the air. Limited evidence also noted that UVC can also inactivate SARS-CoV-2 and other coronaviruses by destroying the outer protein envelope of the virus.
These lights were also used in real life during the pandemic. The New York Metropolitan Transport Authority, for example, bought $ 1 million value of UVC lamps to disinfect metro cars every evening. The CARES law adopted in March 2020 was intended to allow companies and public sector institutions to use government loans to buy cleaning services, including UV lamps.
Yet some consumer lamps have received their fair share of critical. On the one hand, they can cause eye injuries or burns if people are exposed to them for a long time. An opinion of UVC disinfection (notably written by two scientists with ties to a UVC disinfection company) offered a blunt assessment noting that “unscientific performance claims” were “widespread” in the nascent industry.
For its part, R-Zero’s Arc has third-party testing under its belt – it has been shown to reduce 99.99% of two viruses: a common cold coronavirus and a surrogate for norovirus on surfaces. It was also 99.99% effective at killing E. Coli and methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).
Despite back and forth about the usefulness of some UVC lamps as disinfection technology, some analysts suggest that this industry is not going anywhere (for example, LG entered UV cleaning space). Tim Mulrooney, Commercial Services Equity Analyst for William Blair, say it Washington post that we are experiencing a “paradigm shift” in the way people think about hygiene.
Surveys from 2020 suggest cleaning procedures were a priority for employees and customers. 3000 people interrogates By Deloitte, 64% of employees said regular cleaning of shared spaces was important to them and 62% of customers wanted surfaces cleaned after every interaction. (This despite the evidence that surfaces are not considered a means of spreading COVID-19.)
At this point, it’s unclear how the surge in vaccines might impact perceptions of office cleanliness. But Morgan is betting that businesses (and employees) are now more aware of the germs among us than they were before the pandemic, and will be eager to find ways to control their spread, which includes managing the flow of people in an office.
For R-Zero, this means going beyond UVC disinfection to focus on occupancy management, with the acquisition of CoWorkr.
Morgan calls the CoWorkr sensors the “eyes and ears” of R-Zero. R-Zero plans to announce two UVC-based products that address clean air in occupied spaces, and will use CoWorkr’s sensors to provide “full automation.”
For example, CoWorker’s battery-powered thermal sensors let employers know which rooms in an office are occupied. This information, he says, could help trigger the use of a UV-based air filter or other cleaning products.
This information could also tell janitorial staff to clean the room more thoroughly that evening – or conversely, to forgo cleaning a room that has not been touched all day.
“What our customers are seeing is that they get an immediate return on their investment. Our customers reduce their labor costs by 30-40%, ”says Morgan.
Overall, Morgan says, the company is optimistic that people will always want clean workspaces; possibly due to some lingering “scar tissue” from the pandemic, he notes.
“In almost 100% of cases, our clients see this as a long-term investment,” adds Morgan.