Two years into a worldwide pandemic, outfits around the globe are wrestling with how to resume their in-person operations safely. Consider that Apple just scrapped its office-return deadline, while Google, which plans to require its workforce to return to its offices three times a week at some point next year, made it clear to employees yesterday that if they don’t get vaccinated, they 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,” said Google in a statement to CNBC:
Still, 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’s able to combine microbial genomics and data analytics to answer the question of whether a physical space has played host to someone with Covid-19.
How does it do it? In broad strokes, Phylagen employs a network of sensors, swabs, and sample collectors who put the materials into packages twice a week, then ship them to a centralized lab. Phylagen then promises data within 72 hours about whether sick people have carried germs inside a building — which it divides 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 has long fascinated founder and CEO Jessica Green, a former biology professor who is formally trained as both a civil engineer and a microbiome scientist.
It was a lonely obsession until recently, however. As Green explains it: “We spend 90% of our time indoors and know nothing about what we’re breathing in, even while during this very conversation, we’ll both emit millions of micro organisms and inhale hundreds and thousands of viruses, bacteria, and molds that [can have] really severe 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 its earliest days until some time last spring, the company operated in what’s called the supply chain track-and-trace market, a segment that businesses use to ensure that their products have followed an expected path toward their final destination. (Detours can mean products have been tampered with, which can ruin a company’s reputation or even lead to deadly consequences, especially when it comes to pharmaceuticals.)
Green suggests there was interest in the product as a means to track Covid as the pandemic took hold, but as it became clearer that the virus was spreading through aerosols and not surfaces, Phylagen pivoted completely to another application of Phylagen’s technology. It began to use its learnings — 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 push it out to customers.
Apparently, there are a growing number of them. While Green declined to name specific clients, saying only that Phylagen is working closely with numerous big tech companies and commercial real estate companies, she said the business, cofounded by Harrison Dillon — he previously cofounded the industrial biotech firm Solazyme — is going like gangbusters heading into 2022.
Revenue, she says, has grown 10 times year over year. The company has 40 employees up from 20. Phylagen plans to double headcount again, in fact, aided by strategic funding the company quietly raised this past summer from Johnson Controls, a publicly traded European conglomerate that produces fire, HVAC, and security equipment for buildings.
Altogether, Phylagen has raised $30 million to date, including from 3M, Breakout Ventures, and Cultivian Sandbox.
Of course, questions remain, including whether Phylagen can outmaneuver rivals that are springing up in the space.
“There are emerging competitors because this is the new normal,” acknowledges Green. “Everybody is going to be demanding healthy indoor air, and there are currently very antiquated ways of measuring indoor air quality, and no affordable, reliable ways to test for anything biological that’s air-related.”
Phylagen’s own processes may seem antiquated to those who don’t want to wait up to 72 hours for results from either the labs that Phylagen owns (it has one in San Francisco and another in Manhattan) or with which it partners. After all, given how quickly the coronavirus is still spreading, two or three days might sound to some potential customers like an eternity. [Update: After publication of this post, Phylagen reached out to say that Green misspoke and that Phylagen can return results to customers within 24 hours.]
Green suggests that window will shrink soon enough. “In the next generation [of testing], everything will be automated and on site. Imagine a CO2 sensor or Nest thermostat that gives information on temperature and relative humidity. There is a clear path to being able to detect DNA and RNA that is airborne in a similar way, and that’s what we’re working toward.”
Certainly, if Phylagen fulfills its potential, its opportunities look, well, significant. For one thing, Phylagen can test for much more than Covid-19 and says that allergens are also on its road map.
Beyond its commercial possibilities, there is also the home. Already, early investor 3M appears to be champing at the bit to develop data-driven consumer products. It even began selling a home cleanliness kit in September using Phylagen’s technology, though judging by the kit’s price on Amazon — it costs roughly $180 –it’s too expensive for most homeowners to consider at this point and is more of a trial balloon.
In the meantime, Green insists that the company remains entirely focused for now on its enterprise customers, in part because it doesn’t have time to consider other products, not anytime soon.
“The main thing to take away from that [3M] product is that we can really make any menu of organisms that we want to test for,” she says. “But the most relevant and the largest market opportunity and the biggest market need right now is the commercial building space.
“It’s more a function of what we’re able to keep up with,” she adds. “Right now, We’re racing to meet demand.”