This Founder Developed A Device To Tackle Surface Germs Amid Covid
By Monica Haider
What started as grief over a friend’s staph infection that rapidly led to an emergency room visit and the friend’s untimely death turned into brainstorming and a new perspective on germs, healthcare and innovation by Debra Vanderhoff. The infection that gripped Vanderhoff’s friend had taken her from an ordinary day to death within days, after coming in contact with a contaminated door handle, which led to an ear infection that eventually penetrated her brain, according to Vanderhoff. She views it as a preventable loss, and thus began exploring ways to fight germs that exist so prevalently on commonly-used touchpoints.
In 2019, Vanderhoff merged her innovative and creative skills, aiming to make a difference in the germ-contracting realm to try and mitigate losses such as the one of her friend. This meant embarking in an area of business that was relatively new to her. She and her husband Chris Hickey “tinkered around in the garage, put some parts together,” Vanderhoff said. “We’re not engineers, we’re not scientists—we’re just very resourceful people.”
The result, after much trial and error is the GermPass, a decontamination chamber with UVC light for public touchpoints, launched by Vanderhoff’s company MicroLumix. The couple put in $3 million to dive into the research and development and manufacturing, according to Vanderhoff. Fast forward to February of this year, as germ spreading and infectious disease continues to be a widespread concern, they launched the technology. Now the company is partnering with Crothall Healthcare, a healthcare support services company whose leaders plan to incorporate the device in all their facilities and eventually promote it in their 620 nationwide accounts.
Vanderhoff, though not from the medical field herself, was aware that hands, in direct contact with touchpoints, can carry many germs—with an average of 3,200 different germs transferred through contact with contaminated hands or surfaces. And some of those germs can lead to infections. Tackling touchpoints seemed like a fair shot, as “many communicable diseases are transferred by touch, by the hands,” according to Dr. Chanu Rhee, M.D., an infectious disease physician and associate hospital epidemiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. And it’s possible that staph infections, which can be spread by the hands, can lead to invasive infections and in some severe cases could lead to death, Rhee said. It depends on the bug, but that’s a reason good hand washing can make a difference in infection prevention and control, he added.
Vanderhoff, who has a professional background in consulting and marketing and a history of forming start-up companies with her husband, now serves as the COO of MicroLumix. She points to her proficiency in connecting with businesses as well as “the drive to be able to source things” as strengths that guided them through the development process.
But sourcing and communication beyond the couple’s garage came after much trial and error that consumed the early days of the GermPass. On figuring out what kind of a material and mechanics would be buildable, the couple would buy parts, put them together, and often asked in the end, “what do we do with it?” followed by, “I don’t know. Let’s Google it.” Searching technicalities of putting pieces together helped them out, including how to install sensor-activated doors that open and close—inspired by garage doors and some garbage cans. The product had to close because it has to be sterile, Vanderhoff said. The process led her to “troubleshoot, draw stuff out, order some parts, glue things together.”
Eventually, with the help of a neighbor and Navy veteran with electronics experience, she embedded a trash can with UVC light. UVC radiation is a disinfectant known to reduce the spread of bacteria, according to the FDA, and has been proven “to destroy the outer protein coating of the SARS-Coronavirus,” though the FDA lays out potential safety risks. For Vanderhoff’s product the power came from a de-commissioned drone battery. Then, after buying a portable ATP germ testing device, the road was clear to test the germ-killing chamber’s ability.
After reaching a point where they figured out the components and conceptually designed how the system would work, Vanderhoff utilized her talent of sourcing to locate engineers for the lighting and design sides, and had them work on constructing the product she had visualized.
Targeting healthcare facilities has been a priority of Vanderhoff’s from early on. On Crothall Healthcare’s investment in the technology, Crothall National Director of Standardization, Innovation and Global Support Eric Anderson explained, “this affects patient experience knowing the hospitals are doing everything they can to protect their patients, visitors and staff.” The GermPass will also be used on door handle units of all patient rooms and other office doors at eight locations of Florida’s Angel Kids Pediatrics starting at the end of August, according to the Dr. Ashraf Affan, chairman of the center.
Vanderhoff hopes her technology can one day help serve other touchpoints as well, such as elevator buttons, ATM machines and shopping carts.
Photo Source: Joe Jenkins Photography