While the new strain of coronavirus is causing disruptions to the travel industry and broader economy, heightened concerns about germs are contributing to a surge in sales for some startups in the disinfecting space.
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Zoom Communications, which makes video conferencing software, gained more users so far this year than it did in all of 2019, according to Bernstein Research. Sales of Bath and Body Works’ popular hand sanitizers are also being lifted from fears of coronavirus.
And as it turns out, startups that disinfect items with UV light are also seeing a boost in sales since the outbreak–and are hustling to keep up with demand as a result.
PhoneSoap, a company that makes devices to clean phones and other items with UV light, has seen 1,000 percent growth year over year in the past week, according to PhoneSoap co-founder and president Dan Barnes. The company, which is based in Lehi, Utah, and appeared on the show Shark Tank, isn’t into backorders yet, but it will be shortly, Barnes said.
“We’re seeing significant interest in it, and it makes sense to us,” Barnes said in an interview with Crunchbase News.
In about mid-January, PhoneSoap executives began to notice an uptick in interest from overseas on both their website and Amazon. But the surge in sales really came after United States government officials and the Centers for Disease Control started speaking out more about the outbreak and threat to the U.S. The CDC doesn’t single out cellphones as items that need to be cleaned to prevent coronavirus, but it recommends frequent hand-washing and routine disinfection of frequently touched areas, like countertops and doorknobs.
“Specifically, mobile device hygiene was a major and fast-growing concern even before coronavirus came on the scene,” Taylor Mann, CEO of CleanSlate UV, said in an interview. The COVID-19 outbreak has only added fuel to that fire, he added.
CleanSlate UV, which is based in Toronto and has roughly $2 million in funding, makes devices that sanitize items with UV light. In hospitals, staff usually use CleanSlate UV for items like stethoscopes, badges and phones, and visitors often use it for their phones.
To put it mildly, phones are nasty. In fact, scientists at the University of Arizona found that cellphones carry 10 times more bacteria than most toilet seats.
“They’re essentially mobile petri dishes that live in your pockets,” Mann said. PhoneSoap refers to cell phones as a “third hand that you never wash” because of how frequently they are touched and how dirty they get.
It isn’t known how effective UV light is at killing the COVID-19 virus because it’s a novel strain, said both Mann and PhoneSoap CEO and co-founder Wesley LaPorte in separate interviews.
“What we can say is UV light has been proven to be effective against previous strains of coronavirus,” Mann said. “We just don’t know how effective it is against this specific strain.”
Chemical disinfectants work to kill bacteria and viruses, but there’s often user error when cleaning with chemicals, LaPorte said. Users likely miss spots, or put their phone in their pocket immediately after wiping it so it doesn’t dry completely–something that’s critical to disinfect the item. PhoneSoap’s UV light does a 360-degree clean.
It’s been known since the 1870s that UV light has an “inhibiting effect” on bacteria, and physician Niels Ryberg Finsen won the Nobel Prize for this work fighting lupus vulgaris with UV light, according to The Nobel Prize’s website. UV sanitizers use UV-C light, which has a shorter wavelength and can kill bacteria and viruses.
About 90 percent of CleanSlate UV’s customer base is in health care, Mann said, and since the company introduced its product in early 2018, it’s been doubling deployment across hospitals every six months. CleanSlate UV is now in more than 80 hospitals in the United States and Canada, and also has a presence in Australia, Hong Kong and Europe.
But since the outbreak of coronavirus, CleanSlate has received inquiries from companies spanning industries like manufacturing and education. The company has quoted more units in the past month than in the previous six months combined, Mann said, and just shipped a “big batch” to Hong Kong specifically in response to the concerns around coronavirus.
“It’s not just hospitals that are concerned about mobile device hygiene, that would be the biggest shift here,” he said.
The CleanSlate UV team is now looking at how to ramp up production to meet demand.
Said Mann, “We knew even before this crisis hit that this would be a hot topic in health care and beyond health care … everyone on our team is incredibly passionate about this problem.
Illustration: Dom Guzman