As people return to offices and public places more than a year after pandemic closures, LifeAire Systems founder and CEO Dr. Kathryn Worrilow is looking beyond COVID. How about making indoor spaces safe not only from COVID or its variants, but also colds and the flu?
The Allentown-based LifeAire, a longtime Ben Franklin Technologies client, got its start with air-purification systems for in-vitro fertilization labs. The company’s proprietary system removes all contaminants from the air that passes through it, including fungi, bacteria, viruses, and other invisible particles. We last spoke with Worrilow in June 2020, a few months after she and her team developed a device to ease a critical shortage at the time: N95 masks for healthcare workers.
As hospital workers (including Worrilow’s own spouse, who is an ER doctor in the Lehigh Valley) faced the risks of reusing scarce N95 masks, the LifeAire team developed the Aire~PPE Decontamination Unit. Last year, Worrilow compared it to “a large microwave” that can safely sterilize up to 20 N95 masks at a time in just four minutes. So instead of throwing away N95s after one use, LifeAire clients can now reuse them up to 20 times, protecting workers and saving money.
It’s been an intense process to get the device off the ground, and it’s still not available in hospital settings.
“Everything in a hospital is considered a medical device, so it needs FDA approval,” she explains.
There’s good news in the meantime: The patented device does not need FDA approval for use in non-hospital settings, and LifeAire now offers the unit to facilities including police and fire stations, food and beverage operators, funeral homes, medical and dental offices, and manufacturers.
Given the focus on healthcare professionals, millions of other less visible workers were having a hard time getting N95s.
“They may not be able to be six feet apart,” says Worrilow of workers like those in the food industry. “They’re side-by-side and they need the N95 masks.”
“Thank goodness we have these vaccine options, but we’re going to be masking up for a long time,” she continues. Increasing the supply of N95s in non-medical settings helps ensure that hospitals can get enough.
It’s a huge cost-saving, too: Any organization running the unit around the clock can save up to $297,000 a month versus buying new masks. And that doesn’t include savings on the disposal of used masks, which are classified as biohazard waste.
We’re now placed in many, many more non-healthcare areas than we would have ever expected.Dr. Kathryn Worrilow, LifeAire
LifeAire’s current expansion was on the way before the pandemic. The company’s flagship air purification system was already moving beyond the lab and into hospitals. A large study at the Allentown campus of St. Luke’s University Healthcare Network (published last September) demonstrated that hospital rooms protected by LifeAire saw a 39 percent reduction in the length of patients’ hospital stays, versus patients in rooms without the purification system.
Besides patient wellbeing, those shorter stays are “a key economic driver for hospitals,” says Worrilow. LifeAire is moving quickly to meet demand from other hospitals and healthcare networks. But now, after a pandemic that made everyone newly aware of the air we breathe, demand for the system has exploded beyond the healthcare world.
As Worrilow puts it, the LifeAire system provides “an extreme kill of COVID,” along with any other viruses or bacteria, including influenza, tuberculosis, and anthrax. “We’ve been using the same technology and sizing non-healthcare spaces, like large commercial office spaces, for when their workers and staff return.”
That means scaling and customizing the system for everything from dentist offices to theaters, long-term care facilities, schools, churches, and even airports. To keep up with the demand, LifeAire has been hiring for positions in sales, engineering, manufacturing, operations, and logistics.
“We’re now placed in many, many more non-healthcare areas than we would have ever expected,” adds the founder. “Our mission is all about patient and resident care, so if the same technology can be applied to help others, that’s what we’re all about.”
ALAINA JOHNS is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer and the Editor-in-Chief of BroadStreetReview.com, Philly’s hub for arts, culture and commentary.