After months of lockdown in several countries throughout the world, governments are increasingly loosening restrictions and reopening the economy. However, we are far from returning back to normal. Instead, as a society, we are having to create a new normal in which we strive to keep each other safe. This new normal involves attempts in rendering shared spaces as clean, sanitised and therefore safe as possible.
Startups have been producing innovative solutions to address concerns from a wide variety of sectors impacted by the risk of spreading COVID-19, such as transport and retail. These efforts have been supported by entities such as the European Commission, which is investing millions (a boost of €122 million more in funding most recently) in support of research and innovation efforts to tackle the virus.
Efforts to call onto companies for help have been successful in many countries. In March alone, 320 French startups responded to the French Secretary of State for the Digital Sector Cedric O’s call for initiatives to tackle COVID-19. So, what have been some of the key areas of innovation to help make public spaces safe?
Robotics as a tool to carry out disinfection
Disinfection with liquid products is the most classic disinfection technique. However, it is not very scalable as it requires human intervention to apply the product to surfaces. Alternatives have been emerging, such as airborne disinfection systems. In aerial disinfection, the disinfectant is dispersed in the form of droplets which are deposited on surfaces. There are four techniques: spraying, misting, fogging and vaporisation. These techniques are especially useful to disinfect areas which are hard to reach.
Numerous startups pair aerial disinfection systems with robotics, in order to disinfect rooms while they are empty, without the need for an operator. An example of this would be the disinfection of MTR public transport in Hong Kong. A robot developed by Avalon sprays hydrogen peroxide throughout the interior of subway trains. The robot moves autonomously thanks to sensors and a front camera, sanitising eight subway trains per hour. French startup Oxy’Pharm, ranked in the top 10% of Early Metrics’ rated startups, has developed a robot that sprays disinfectant into the room thanks to a heating and ionising turbine that transforms the liquid into gas. The company is working on a range of products for hospitals and the food sector. Many startups had already been developing these types of systems before the pandemic for manufacturing sites and hospitals in order to reduce contamination or infection risks. They are now faced with the opportunity to apply their solutions to new use cases such as in public spaces, grocery stores, banks, public transport, etc.
Drones are also increasingly used to carry out disinfection efforts. The city of Cannes recently announced it would be using drones to disinfect the city streets. The solutions paired with drones could be aerial disinfectant liquids but also UV light. Indeed, UV light has the ability to deactivate microorganisms such as bacteria viruses and protozoa by altering their DNA to prevent them from reproducing. Another example is Hong Kong Airport, which is using robots equipped with UV light to disinfect areas used by travellers.
Integrating disinfection within everyday objects
Perhaps one of the cleverest innovations currently being observed in the fight against COVID-19 is the integration of disinfectant tools directly within objects we touch every day. It is quite challenging to change ingrained habits and trust that people will continue to take sanitary precautions (like frequently washing their hands and sneezing in their elbow) as the lockdown eases. Because of this, integrated solutions help ensure stronger protection in busy shared spaces such as airports, co-working spaces, train stations and shopping centres – among others.
For instance, Smart Hygiene, a UK-based startup, has developed a self-cleaning door handle called SteriGrip. Every time the handle is used by someone, a rotating mechanism brings the handle into the door, where an internal disinfection system sanitises it before popping it back out.
Meanwhile, startups like Parx Materials are developing plastics with anti-bacterial properties, which protect products from contamination. The startup’s patented material can be applied to numerous products and industries. It most recently led to a partnership with ZincIn to apply the technology to food trays for restaurants and fast-food chains. The aim is to help keep customers safe from spreading bacteria and viruses, as studies showed a 99.9% decrease in the number of germs on these trays compared to the ones previously used. As we begin to see restaurants reopen throughout the world, technologies of this type seem vital to reduce the likelihood of spreading COVID-19 and other diseases. The startup has also developed a range of microbe-resistant shelves for the grocery store Aldi, further demonstrating how versatile this technology can be.
German startup Uvis, has tackled disinfection for another key object we touch regularly when commuting to work or travelling: the escalator handrail. The startup has developed a module that quickly disinfects the handrail by exposing it to UV-C germicides each time it moves into the hidden part of the escalator.
Ultimately, besides preventing the spread of disease, these efforts are also important in reassuring those who are currently afraid of returning to the office, go shopping or walking in public spaces post-lockdown. Indeed, Ipsos Moris polling found that 71% of British respondents were nervous about leaving the house if businesses were allowed to reopen and travel restrictions were lifted. This fear exists worldwide – while many are eager for economies to reopen and for life to go on, fear of public spaces remains. This highlights the necessity for startups with the right technology to work hand-in-hand with businesses and governments to help make public spaces as safe as possible for citizens.