Mon. Jan 17th, 2022

Two years after a global pandemic, outfits around the world are grappling with how to safely resume personal operations. Recall that Apple just scrapped the office return deadline, while Google, which plans to have its staff return to its offices three times a week next year, made it clear to employees yesterday that if they don’t get vaccinated, they will will eventually lose their jobs. “Our vaccination requirements are one of the most important ways we can keep our workforce safe and keep our services running,” Google said in a statement to CNBC:

Yet even vaccinated individuals can become infected with variants of the highly contagious coronavirus. Enter Phylagen, a low-flying, seven-year-old, San Francisco-based company that says it can combine microbial genomics and data analytics to answer the question of whether a physical space has hosted someone with Covid-19.

How is it doing? Broadly speaking, Phylagen uses a network of sensors, swabs and sample collectors that pack the materials twice a week and then ship them to a centralized lab. Phylagen then promises data within 72 hours on whether sick people have carried germs into a building — dividing it into floors and zones for tracking purposes — or whether the building’s air is safe to breathe.

The company calls it “enterprise pathogen monitoring as a service,” and its feasibility fascinates founder and CEO Jessica Green, a former biology professor formally trained as both a civil engineer and a microbiome scientist.

Until recently, however, it was a solitary obsession. As Green explains, “We spend 90% of our time indoors and know nothing about what we breathe, even as we expel millions of microorganisms as well as hundreds and thousands of viruses, bacteria, and fungi during this conversation. [can have] really serious consequences for our health and well-being.” While she “knew this decades ago,” she adds, the public’s understanding “has come to fruition with this pandemic.”

Phylagen wasn’t always so focused on the air we breathe. From the earliest days until some time last spring, the company operated in the so-called supply chain track-and-trace market, a segment that companies use to ensure that their products have followed the expected path to their final destination. (Detouring can mean tampering with products, which can ruin a company’s reputation or even have deadly consequences, especially when it comes to pharmaceuticals.)

Green suggests there was interest in the product as a means of detecting Covid as the pandemic spread, but when it became clearer that the virus spread via aerosols and not surfaces, Phylagen completely turned to another application of Phylagen’s technology. . It began to use its lessons – and its ever-growing database of microorganisms – not for traceability applications, but instead to enter buildings, capture the microorganisms found there, then digitize the information and send it to send customers.

Apparently there are more and more. While Green declined to name specific clients, saying only that Phylagen works closely with numerous major tech and commercial real estate companies, she said the company, co-founded by Harrison Dillon — he previously co-founded industrial biotech company Solazyme — is on its way as gangbusters. in 2022.

Sales, she says, have grown 10-fold year over year. The company has 40 employees instead of 20. Phylagen plans to double its workforce again, actually aided by strategic funding the company quietly raised last summer from Johnson Controls, a publicly traded European conglomerate that sells fire, HVAC and security equipment. manufactures for buildings.

In total, Phylagen has raised $30 million to date, including from 3M, Breakout Ventures and Cultivian Sandbox.

Of course, questions remain, including whether Phylagen can outsmart the rivals emerging in space.

“There are emerging competitors because this is the new norm,” Green acknowledges. “Everyone will demand healthy indoor air, and there are currently very outdated ways to measure indoor air quality, and no affordable, reliable ways to test for anything biological that has to do with air.”

Phylagen’s proprietary processes may seem outdated to those who don’t want to wait 72 hours for results from the labs Phylagen owns (it has one in San Francisco and another in Manhattan) or works with. After all, given how quickly the coronavirus continues to spread, two or three days can sound like an eternity to some potential customers.

Green suggests the window will shrink soon enough. “In the next generation [of testing], everything is automated and on site. Imagine a CO2 sensor or Nest thermostat that provides information about temperature and relative humidity. There’s a clear path to detect DNA and RNA that’s in the air in a similar way, and that’s what we’re working towards.”

Certainly, if Phylagen fulfills its potential, the chances seem significant. For starters, Phylagen can test for much more than Covid-19 and says allergens are also on its road map.

In addition to the commercial possibilities, there is also the house. Early investor 3M already seems eager to develop data-driven consumer products. It even started selling a home cleaning kit using Phylagen’s technology in September, although judging by the kit’s price on Amazon — it costs about $180 — it’s too expensive for most homeowners to buy on this one. moment to consider and is more of a test balloon.

In the meantime, Green insists that the company remains fully focused on its corporate customers for now, in part because it doesn’t have time to consider other products, not in the short term.

“The most important thing to take away from that [3M] product is that we can really create any menu of organisms that we want to test for,” she says. “But the most relevant and the biggest market opportunity and the biggest market need right now is the commercial building space.

“It’s more of a function of what we can track,” she adds. “Right now we are racing to meet demand.”

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