airborne COVID-19 detection in offices
airborne COVID-19 detection in offices

airborne COVID-19 detection in offices

When the COVID-19 pandemic turned the world upside down in 2020, Jessica Green’s interest in secure buildings went from a company’s reflection to global priority.

“This trigger was an awakening in a world where almost everyone now understands that we live immersed in this sea of ​​air indoors – we spend 90% of our lives indoors – and we are surrounded by this very rich microbial ecosystem,” Green said. “Most of the rooms we work, live and play in are controlled in a very unintentional way in terms of indoor air quality, and that’s not how it needs to be.”

Green, CEO of San Francisco startup Phylagen, is on a quest to develop an airborne surveillance system that will alert companies to the presence of coronavirus particles, other viruses and even allergens like pollen. The company hopes to release a prototype within a year.

Currently, the company trains on-site workers, such as janitors, to collect samples from offices twice a week with hand sticks. These are sent to one of three Phylagen laboratories, including one at South of Market headquarters, and sequenced through PCR tests, with results available in a few hours.

Phylagen’s largest customer is Silverstein Properties, owner of several World Trade Center towers in New York, where tenants include tech companies Uber and Spotify. Green said Phylagen is also working with a global technology company based in Silicon Valley that she would not identify.

Ed Haslam, Chief Marketing Officer of Phylagen, demonstrates how a UPC code at the bottom of a vial is scanned during a demonstration of collecting samples around the Phylagen office in San Francisco. The company is working on technology that can detect the virus in the air.

Lea Suzuki / The Chronicle

Green sees technology as a way for companies to bring workers back safely and a way to detect the presence of coronavirus even if employees do not show symptoms. In the long run, it is a way to manage offices and ensure optimal air quality. Phylagen also develops software for customers that displays floor-to-floor test results through an online dashboard.

The goal of an automated airborne detection system is to remove the manual work component by inoculation and increase the frequency of data collection. Challenges for airborne detection include collecting enough sample material that is more dispersed in the air compared to surfaces.

“In the long run, it will be much more hassle-free to have sensors that are not in touch, collecting data and pushing that data to the building automation system,” Green said.

Green, a native of Bay Area, received his doctorate in nuclear engineering from UC Berkeley. A mentor encouraged her to take a closer look at microbial ecology, and in 2000 she read a paper on how collecting an environmental sample and analyzing DNA sequences could reveal which small organisms were present.

After staying in academia at the University of Oregon and UC Merced, Green co-founded Phylagen in 2015 with the goal of reading microbial data in buildings as a way to control air quality.

Prior to the pandemic, the company worked to track microbial material in supply chains to ensure shipments were not contaminated. After the coronavirus arrived, Phylagen first implemented environmental testing for logistics customers in department stores before switching fully to focus on office buildings. As the samples are collected from the environment, Phylagen is not subject to government test rules and can ship them across international borders.

Ed Haslam, Chief Marketing Officer of Phylagen, has a scanner showing an app used to enter samples collected from around an office space at the company's headquarters in San Francisco.  The company is working on technology that can detect the virus in the air.

Ed Haslam, Chief Marketing Officer of Phylagen, has a scanner showing an app used to enter samples collected from around an office space at the company’s headquarters in San Francisco. The company is working on technology that can detect the virus in the air.

Lea Suzuki / The Chronicle

The company has raised $ 14 million from investors, including from industry giant 3M, maker of N95 masks, and Peter Thiel-backed Breakout Ventures. (The company name is derived from phylogeny, or the study of how parts of organisms develop.)

Green declined to say how many customers the company has, but said the test covered over 100 million square feet and 18 cities. Revenue has increased 10 times in the past year, Green said, but would not provide details. The number of employees increased 40% to about 40 people.

Phylagen is not alone, and some companies already sell airborne detection products. Another Bay Area startup, Poppy, developed a device that has been compared to one COVID “smoke detector.” New Mexico startup BioFlyte has an airborne detection system called Sentinel.

“It is promising from my point of view that we see competitors appearing in the market. And that’s just an indication that there’s real market demand and public understanding of the need to put biology in the mix in terms of delivering healthy indoor environments, ”Green said.

The current grafting system is a cheaper alternative to human testing and less intrusive, while being more focused than any other prominent practice, wastewater test. Taking samples from a zone of desks and getting a positive test can narrow it down to a dozen people, while sewage tests can encapsulate thousands of people.

Dave Coil, a project researcher at the UC Davis Genome Center, worked on a pilot experiment to clean air filters at local elementary schools to collect samples. The technology was similar to Phylagen.

“Everything has its pros and cons. Inoculations are much more labor intensive,” but it provides more targeted data on where the virus is, Coil said. An airborne detection system would not require as much work, but it may not be specific which area of ​​a building has the virus. Another challenge for inoculation is timing: a positive result does not reveal when the virus was secreted, so more frequent sampling is better. An airborne system that is always on would have an advantage.

Another obstacle is whether PCR tests could be performed on site instead of in a laboratory as part of a detection system, which would reduce the time it takes to get results by significantly eliminating shipping times.

The technology is possible, said Coil, whose leader, Jonathan Eisen, is on Phylagen’s science advisory board. Coil has also discussed test method with the company.

“Wastewater (testing) is here to stay. It has proven itself without a doubt,” Coil said. “Indoor sampling is, in my opinion, more experimental.”

Another risk for Phylagen and other startups in the field is that as the pandemic subsides, environmental testing will no longer be a priority for companies, but Green believes the world’s mindset has changed permanently.

“I do not think the world will ever come back on several levels,” Green said. “Researchers do not believe that COVID will disappear for the time being, it could become something resembling more influenza. But we know that even influenza alone is a huge financial burden for companies.”


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