For the executive team at SafetySpect, the work to develop a device that can neutralize a virus on the surface of an object goes beyond the pandemic, as they seek to create a scientifically-verifiable standard of cleanliness.
The company recently opened an office in Grand Forks to take advantage of a $1.5 million grant from the North Dakota Department of Agriculture to further develop its Contamination and Sanitation Inspection and Disinfection (CSI-D) device. It’s a hand-held device that can detect and eradicate pathogens, including coronavirus, by using light from the highest energy portion of the ultraviolet radiation spectrum. The device, company officials say, redefines what it means for people to think of something as clean.
“To my knowledge, there's never been a baseline for cleanliness,” said Ken Barton, CEO of SafetySpect. “There's never been a tool to really determine what cleanliness is, so it's been very subjective.”
Before the pandemic, Barton said, it was common to see a restaurant worker use a towel to wipe down the seat of a chair, then use that same towel to wipe the table top. Doing so may transfer whatever was on the seat to the table. But the pandemic has made consumers much more aware of disease transmission, not to mention foodborne illness, and people aren’t content with simply seeing a surface wiped down, or a hand sanitizer bottle attached to a wall. They want to know the things they touch are clean.
The company is working to introduce its CSI-D device into restaurant chains. Having them there can not only reassure a customer that the location is clean, but offer a measure of protection for the business itself.
The device, a hand-held scanner with UVC lights, meets what Fartash Vasefi, chief technology officer for SafetySpect, calls the “four pillars” of sanitization: detection, disinfection, documentation and verification.
A worker can use the device to scan an area and locate respiratory droplets that may contain a pathogen, like coronavirus. The machine then sterilizes the area with UVC lights, and creates a digital report and video that documents the area has been cleaned. The worker can then rescan the area to verify nothing has been missed, and the business has evidence to show an area has been cleaned.
“Now, all other industries are trying to show to the world that their facilities are clean, and people care much more,” Vasefi said.
The CSI-D device doesn’t replace the need for traditional cleaning, but is a tool to allow a business to clean an area to a level that Barton calls “beyond best practices for sanitation protocols.”
The device is meant to be used in a variety of industries, beyond restaurants. It has been tested to clean UND aircraft, and is being piloted at Red River High School. Kouhyar Tavakolian, associate professor and director of the biomedical engineering program in the UND College of Engineering and Mines, is working with a team to validate the device. It will be manufactured at a facility in Wahpeton, N.D.
Introduction of the device on a large scale can help companies make sure their areas are clean in a shorter amount of time than it would ordinarily take. An airline, for instance, can clean the passenger area quickly, when there is a short turnaround time for an aircraft. Food production facilities can use the device to replace swab tests that workers use to search for pathogens. Those swab tests, Barton said, are time consuming, and a worker needs to test the correct surface, whereas the CSI-D scanner is more thorough.
“It's kind of like looking for a needle in a haystack with hundreds, if not thousands, of haystacks,” Barton said, of the swab tests.
There have been several near misses with diseases in recent years, said Nicholas Mackinnon, who works at SafetySpect and has a background in medical device development. Air travel and international trade move new viruses about quickly, and people have been lucky in avoiding them until now, he said, referencing the spread of SARS in 2002, and the novel influenza H1N1 that appeared in 2009. COVID-19, and its impact on peoples’ health and devastating effect on the economy, has brought about a reset in how people think of cleanliness.
“We move goods, we move materials and we move diseases, with greater efficiency than ever before," said Mackinnon.
According to Barton, pre-orders for the CSI-D device are starting to come in, and SafetySpect expects to have pilot devices for schools and food production companies rolling out as soon as early March.
“We're pretty excited because we're in a unique position now where we have a product ready to go out there, and showcase for customers and actually go to market,” said Barton.