R-Zero’s UVC Lamp Fights COVID in Restaurants, Classrooms, and Beyond
Santa Barbara Is Home to Both Mastermind and Early Adopters of New Technology
By Matt Kettmann | November 12, 2020
Could a simple technology developed by a wheelchair-bound Danish scientist 130 years ago to treat his own genetic disorder be a critical part of the cure for our COVID-19 woes? Can the use of these ultraviolet lamps — for which Niels Ryberg Finsen won the 1903 Nobel Prize — in classrooms, restaurants, nursing homes, prisons, and offices stop the spread of diseases, pandemic-causing and otherwise? And if so, perhaps most confounding: What’s taken so long?
The answer to these questions is now on display at The Lark and Loquita restaurants in Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone, moving from room to room at Alisal Guest Ranch & Ranch in Solvang, and in a fast-growing number of classrooms, professional sports lockers, and corporate office complexes across the country. Looking like a six-plus-foot-tall vertical tanning bed on wheels, the R-Zero Arc is a lamp that sprays germicidal UVC rays — a short-wavelength form of ultraviolet light — into unoccupied bathrooms, kitchens, dining areas, or any contained space to kill 99.99 percent of the existing microorganisms, whether viral, bacterial, or fungal.
Though it’s just one part of any situation’s effective COVID-fighting arsenal — masks, social distancing, constant disinfecting, and so forth remain critical — the Arc is certainly one of the newest and flashiest weapons now on the market. And its relatively affordable appeal is powering incredible demand: though just incorporated in April, R-Zero has already raised $17 million from big-name investors, shipped out hundreds of units, and established top-level partnerships in New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Texas, among other states.
“Dealing with COVID day in and day out over eight months, it’s building this pressure and this anxiety,” explains Skyler Gamble, the director of people capital and operations for Acme Hospitality, which owns The Lark, Loquita, and five other establishments in town. “We’ve learned to adapt, but we are really excited and grateful to be partnering with R-Zero. It’s a layer of safety and peace of mind that we could have never predicted.”
Not only is Santa Barbara one of the first places to adopt this technology, but R-Zero’s cofounder and president, Eli Harris, was born and raised and, after a decade of work in China, today resides here again. A product of La Colina Junior High and San Marcos High — his mom a longtime flying instructor at the Santa Barbara Airport, his dad a serial entrepreneur — Harris started the company with two of his mentors: Bay Area–based venture capitalist Ben Boyer and Cal Poly–educated engineer-entrepreneur Grant Morgan.
All three had become “free agents” earlier this year: Boyer was finishing an investment round for Tenaya Capital, Morgan had sold his iCracked tech repair company to Allstate, and Harris was volunteer-teaching at San Marcos High’s Entrepreneurship Academy, having recently sold his interests in his own lithium ion battery business called EcoFlow. With the pandemic rising, the trio started bouncing around ideas in February.
“We thought there was going to be a fundamental shift in human nature,” said Harris, who looked at what happened after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. “There are just new standards of how the world operates relative to security. And there was a lot of psychological scar tissue in addition to these objective standards. We thought that the same thing is going to happen to biosafety after the pandemic. There are going to be objectively new standards that are required of all shared spaces, and some lingering physiological scar tissue. We’ll need to develop trust in our shared spaces.”
They enlisted Richard Wade as their fourth partner and chief scientist. The former director of Cal/OSHA, the state agency focused on workplace health and safety, Wade directed the team to look at hospitals for inspiration. “Since their advent, hospitals have been a place where we encourage sick people to gather,” said Harris. “We wanted to learn how they stop the transmission of pathogens in these environments.”
They were shocked to find a surprisingly simple and old solution. Not only does the UVC technology go back to the 1890s; it also has been used in wastewater treatment plants for more than 100 years and, to a limited extent, in hospitals since the 1940s, when it became a sanitizing strategy to deal with the high turnover of measles patients. But despite the medical world knowing full well that these lamps could help stop infections, they did not become popular in most hospitals until a decade ago, with the 2010 passage of the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare.
Much is made of what Obamacare offers to, or demands from, patients, but the sweeping law also rooted out often stunning inefficiencies in the health-care system. One such jaw-dropper was that hospitals were covered for infections that they caused.
“What they found was that Medicare and Medi-Cal were reimbursing hospitals for hospital-acquired infections,” said Harris. “So if you went in for a knee injury and left with staph, that was a $30,000 liability for the hospital, but it was reimbursed. There were 78 years of data on UVC that showed hospitals that used those systems had fewer incidences of infection. Nobody cared. There was no financial incentive for the hospitals.”
Suddenly needing to protect themselves under the new Obamacare rules, hospitals began installing UVC lamps in operating rooms and elsewhere. Today, most well-capitalized facilities feature them. But as they investigated that sector, the R-Zero found more appalling news.
The price tag for these lamps, which range from $75,000 to $125,000, “is value-priced on the reduction of infections,” said Harris, meaning that dealers base the price on what a hospital will save in liabilities. “It has nothing to do with what it costs.” As usual, those high prices are ultimately paid for by American citizens.
This curious quirk of health-care capitalism is now a $4 billion market. “Fundamentally, this is a lamp on wheels with a timer,” said Harris with a chuckle. “We couldn’t believe it.”
Using Wade’s specs, the team reverse-engineered a lamp rather easily. “The hardware is all off-the-shelf,” said Harris. “There is no secret sauce.”
They had their lamp tested by a government lab in Montana to confirm the top-in-class 99.99 percent kill rate, which they achieve in less UVC-exposure time than what most hospital lamps require. “What we built is more effective than what the hospitals are using,” claimed Harris, who’s proud that R-Zero is selling their lamps based on the cost of materials: $17 per day in a leasing model compared to the $100-plus per day common for the hospitals.
R-Zero took it one step further by developing technology that integrated with GPS to offer a tracking system to ensure each desired zone was treated with the UVC rays on schedule. “Right now, you send a janitorial crew in, and you have no idea what the janitorial crew actually did,” said Harris. With R-Zero, “you can see who ran the device and in which room and at what time and for how long.”
This is especially valuable for institutions like school districts in Salinas, Los Angeles, and Chicago, which are investing in the lamps. “Parents and teachers are freaking out, especially in low-income communities,” said Harris. “They can’t do distance learning. There is no distance. They have to go back to school, and the teachers and parents are terrified.”
Teams in all of the major professional sports leagues are using the technology now, as are corporate offices in Silicon Valley. Prisons and nursing homes are calling, and so are tribal gaming complexes.
“This is applicable to any shared space,” said Harris, “and has the ability to prove that the job has been done.”
For almost every industry, even those that have managed to thrive, 2020 will likely go down as the most challenging year yet. Restaurants, however, remain on the frontlines of the pandemic in every way: managing diverse staffs from a wide array of living conditions; responding to ever-evolving government guidelines, which can change on a dime; struggling with economic and distribution realities on both ends of the business, from the supply-chain disruptions to preparing takeout; and, of course, dealing with the public, some of whom remain wary of masks and social distancing, and others just lacking in basic human decency.
“We talk a lot about the stress of the team, the stress that individuals are going through,” said Gamble, who, like most restaurant people during this time, seems most concerned with protecting his staff, speaking of them like family. “The culture is under a lot of pressure, but we don’t have a choice to work from home. We have to get through it together.”
With reliably pleasant weather, steady tourist traffic, a State Street shut down to cars, and other outdoor dining concessions, Santa Barbara restaurants enjoy advantages that are the envy of other regions. But with the colder, darker, and wetter winter months coming, everyone is both preparing and worrying what will happen, especially with only 25 percent of indoor capacity allowed by current public health guidelines.
Many restaurants are buying additional heaters and building more robust, weatherproof structures in their outside areas. But many are reluctant to go further down that “winterizing” path without official guidance from the city.
“We’ve invested a lot in our outdoor grassy patio and have been loving it,” said Drew Cuddy, owner of Satellite S.B., which expanded onto State Street over the summer. “We’re continually assessing options for longer-term coverage. At the moment though, building a large behemoth without design guidelines from the city isn’t worth the risk for us. We are, instead, buying heat lamps and weighing our comfort allowing 25 percent capacity indoors if it does end up raining.”
But Cuddy, like many other restaurateurs and diners alike, is “increasingly cautious” of eating inside when COVID cases are jumping past 125,000 in a single day nationwide, as they did on Friday. Aaron Peterson, the Solvang restaurateur who just opened Chomp on the Rocks and Salty at the Beach in the Santa Barbara Harbor, is also unsure how comfortable diners will be about inside eating. “Customers might not even want to be seated inside if it were further allowed,” he said.
By no stretch of the imagination is the R-Zero Arc a one-stop shop salve for these worries, and Harris is very quick to assert as much. “The name of the game is risk reduction,” said Harris. “There is zero silver bullet. There is no such thing as risk prevention. The more frequently you run it, the more risk you mitigate, and it’s nearing sterile. But you are only as safe as the last person who enters the space.”
The Arc frequency is pretty consistent at The Lark and its neighboring Acme businesses, including The Lucky Penny, Pearl Social, and Helena Avenue Bakery. It’s almost being used once an hour across those establishments, from the earliest bakery opening time to the latest bar closing, from the bathrooms to the kitchen to the dining areas. The lamp is so easy to use that anyone can handle it, which makes sharing it on an agreed time frame perhaps the hardest part.
“It adds a little time to the management schedule, but the staff has just been very vocal about how safe they feel and how grateful they are for the additional technology,” said Gamble, who is proud to say that Acme’s protocols appear to be successful so far, with only one confirmed case of COVID across their entire restaurant group. “The fact that we have had only one employee fall ill is definitely a sign that things are working.”
Last weekend, the Arc also debuted at Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort in Solvang, whose general manager Kathleen Cochran sees it as a “critical layer of added protection and environmental safety across our guest rooms.” She particularly praised the lamps’ “short disinfection cycles” because they allow her staff to continue focusing on customer service.
Everyone readily admits that another critical selling point for R-Zero is the marketing aspect, for the COVID-19 pandemic is as much about perception as infection. “COVID fatigue is a real thing, so something new that is a little techy is nice,” he explained. “We leave it right by the host stand, and guests are asking a lot of questions.”
The Acme crew is well-equipped to answer them, as well, because they were integral parts of the R-Zero development process. Harris has long looked up to Jim Villanueva, the impact investor husband of Acme’s owner, Sherry Villanueva. So when it was time to better understand the restaurant world, Harris came straight to The Lark.
“It’s definitely not often that restaurants and scientists collaborate,” said Gamble. “They were asking a lot of questions, and our team — because they are so involved in helping us develop these COVID protocols and policies — were really trying to punch holes and assist the R-Zero team in thinking through different aspects of it, whether signage and education or just roll-out and training.”
Brandon Ristaino, who owns The Good Lion, Test Pilot, and a number of other bars with his wife, Misty Orman, plans to start using the Arc in his establishments soon, as well. But they aren’t sure how long they can last with continued regulations from the state and county limiting capacity. “We are hoping for and need Santa Barbara to come out in droves to support their favorite venues during these cold-ish months,” said Ristaino. “Our venues will not survive a slow winter without the consistent support from our community.”
Gamble remains optimistic and is finding upsides in this trying time. “People are consciously eating out, tipping, doing takeout, and being more patient when it’s a little mistake or taking long,” he said. “That’s been one of the silver linings, that people are a little more in tune with how fragile restaurants are.”
Upon graduation from San Marcos High, Harris went to Amherst College, intent on a career in the foreign service. After college, he became a Fulbright scholar at the U.S. Embassy in China, but quickly grew disillusioned.
“I realized that the level of bureaucracy really wasn’t my style,” he recalled. “I thought that, while working in the public sector, my own conviction would play some role. But you really have a fiduciary duty to fulfill a national mandate.”
One day, he “walked into a bar” in Shanghai, saw a guy with a Santa Barbara T-shirt on, and started chatting to Jeffrey Frank, who worked at FLIR Systems in Goleta. That led Harris to a job at DJI, the world’s biggest drone maker, in Shenzhen, China, where Harris helped the company grow its American and European markets.
Four years ago, he started his own company producing large lithium ion batteries, eventually selling more than 200,000 products in 37 countries. He was bought out last year. “It wasn’t the huge exit that I fantasized about,” said Harris. “But as a first-time entrepreneur, to have any kind of exit is a good thing.” That brought him back to Santa Barbara for the first time in 11 years, which is when he started volunteer teaching at his alma mater’s Entrepreneurship Academy.
Soon after, his pandemic ponderings led to R-Zero, but he is very clear that these lamps are not just for the current dilemma. “If we thought this was only a COVID response play, we would have never done this,” said Harris, explaining that the UVC light also kills the microorganisms that cause food poisoning, the seasonal flu, and even the common cold.
Around 40 million Americans get the flu each year, which costs the U.S. economy $17 billion a year. “We’ve just accepted that as normal,” said Harris. “The actions we’re taking now with concerns around biosafety could impact those numbers. What we’re doing now could prevent the spread of any disease.”
Clearly, R-Zero’s cheaper but more effective lamps pose a major threat to the existing $4 billion UVC medical market, and Harris is seeing some web traffic that appears to be coming from those behemoth companies. But he’s pretty sure those dealers won’t try to compete on price.
“If they slash their prices to come downstream, they are cannibalizing their own revenue in the medical space,” said Harris, noting that those companies are doing very well during the pandemic too. “They are selling more than ever into hospitals right now.” Plus, those institutional entities aren’t very nimble, and usually grow by acquiring smaller, smarter competitors.
But being acquired doesn’t seem like R-Zero’s end game. “We are gonna collapse that market,” said Harris bluntly. “We’ve started that journey, but it’s going to take several months because hospitals want more history, which we are starting to build now.”
R-Zero will also be releasing new products in 2021, including a treatment system for HVAC units and smaller lantern-like lamps. But don’t get those confused with the many UVC lights being sold on Amazon during the pandemic, which Harris says are “wholly ineffective” “snake oil.”
To date, R-Zero has shipped out hundreds of units and sold more than $3 million so far after just seven months in business. “We are absolutely flying right now,” said Harris. “The demand is through the roof, and we’re playing catch up. It’s a good problem to have.”