On Tuesday, R-Zero, a pandemic-era biosafety 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 rolled out and companies that sprung up in response to the COVID-19 adapt to another phase of the pandemic.
When R-Zero was founded in April 2020, the company primarily focused on developing hospital-grade UVC disinfection systems, or lights that can neutralize certain types of viruses (more on this later). As companies scrambled for ways to sanitize buildings, the company racked up a total of $58.8 million in funding at a $256.5 million valuation. R-Zero now has about 1,000 private and public sector clients that range from correctional facilities to the Brooklyn Nets and Boston Celtics, to the South San Francisco Unified School District.
CoWorkr was founded in 2014 and had totaled about $200,000 in seed funding, per Crunchbase.
With the acquisition of CoWorkr, R-Zero plans to develop an internet of things-style sensor network to manage both personnel and cleaning in the workplace, says R-Zero founder Grant Morgan. The company is moving beyond simply disinfecting air and surfaces, and will focus on managing the flow of people (and the viruses and bacteria) in public spaces.
“It’s like an OS for the workplace. That’s what we’re building: Tools that help both create and maintain indoor environments with health and productivity at their core,” Morgan tells TechCrunch.
Elizabeth Redmond and Keenan May, both co-founders of CoWorkr, will remain on in full-time roles, where they will run a corporate real estate initiative, and develop an IoT capacity.
“We’ve spent a lot of time with our customers and understanding our customers’ initiatives, especially in commercial real estate,” Redmond tells TechCrunch.
“The majority are moving to a hybrid working scenario and that means you know they really need occupancy information,” she continues. “Our initiative in joining with R-Zero is very much highlighted by what the future of hybrid work looks like and what the future of commercial real estate looks like.”
Pre-CoWorkr, R-Zero’s flagship product was a UVC light called Arc -- a rectangular light that can be wheeled into an office space once janitorial staff leave the office. It also offered a product called Arc Air, an air filter that also uses UVC light to kill germs, and that could be used in occupied spaces.
UVC lights had a brief moment of fame in mid-2020 for several reasons: they seemed like powerful ways to disinfect communal spaces, and there were certain incentives for companies to apply tech-based solutions to COVID-19.
UVC lights have been used in hospitals for decades to sanitize surfaces like scanners, or to sanitize air when inserted into UV air ducts. Studies have shown it can inactivate flu viruses in the air. Limited evidence also noted that UVC can also inactivate SARS-CoV-2 and other coronaviruses by destroying the virus’ outer protein coating.
These lights were also used in real-life during the pandemic. The New York Metropolitan Transport Authority, for example, purchased $1 million worth of UVC lights to disinfect subway cars each evening. The CARES act passed in March 2020 was to allow companies and public sector institutions to use government loans to purchase cleaning services, including UV lights.
Still, some consumer-facing lamps drew their fair share of criticism. For one, they can cause eye injuries or burns if people are exposed to them for a long period of time. One review of UVC disinfection (notably, written by two scientists with ties to a UVC disinfection company) offered a blunt assessment noting that “nonscientific performance claims” were “widespread” in the nascent industry.
For its part, R-Zero’s Arc does have third-party testing to its name -- it was 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 in killing off E. Coli and Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).
Despite back-and-forth over the utility of some UVC lights as disinfection technology, some analysts suggest this industry isn’t going anywhere (for one, LG has entered the UV-based cleaning space). Tim Mulrooney, a commercial services equities analyst for William Blair, told The Washington Post that we’re living through a “paradigm shift” in how people think about hygiene.
Polling from 2020 suggests that cleaning procedures were top of mind for employees and customers alike. Of 3,000 people surveyed by Deloitte, 64% of employees said that regular cleaning of shared spaces was important to them and 62% of customers wanted surfaces cleaned after every interaction. (This is despite evidence that surfaces aren’t thought to be a way that COVID-19 spreads.)
At this point, it’s unclear how the rise of vaccines might impact perceptions of office cleanliness. But Morgan is betting that companies (and employees) are now more aware of the germs in our midst than they might have been pre-pandemic, and will be eager for ways to control their spread -- that includes managing the flow of people within an office.
For R-Zero that means moving beyond UVC disinfection to focus on occupancy management, with the acquisition of CoWorkr.
Morgan calls CoWorkr’s sensors R-Zero’s “eyes and ears.” R-Zero plans to announce two UVC-based products that address air cleanliness in occupied spaces, and will use CoWorkr's sensors to ensure “full automation.”
For instance, CoWorker's battery-powered thermal sensors allow employers to know which rooms in an office are being occupied. That information, he says, could help trigger the use of a UV-based air filter or other cleaning products.
That information could also tell janitorial staff to clean the room more thoroughly that evening — or conversely, to forgo cleaning a room that hasn't been touched all day.
“What our customers are seeing is that they’re getting an immediate ROI. Our customers are reducing labor costs by 30-40%,” says Morgan.
Overall, says Morgan, the company is bullish on the idea that people will still crave clean workspaces; perhaps due to some lingering “scar tissue” from the pandemic, he notes.
“In almost 100% of cases, our customers are looking at this as a long term investment,” Morgan adds.