After an earlier setback, Auckland startup Tether is on the up, having just raised $1.75 million at a $10m valuation - and with a pandemic-related product launch set for later this month.
Through a new smartphone app, with readouts friendly to laypeople, the company has adapted its $303 EnviroQ - a smoke-detector-sized device whose capabilities include the ability to read carbon dioxide levels - as "Covid Care" product to measure the safety of an enclosed space.
CO2 is created when people breathe out, and gauging the level of CO2 in the air is a way of assessing if a room is ventilated well enough to minimise the risk of Covid transmission.
With Auckland poised to reopen in earnest, founder and CEO Brandon van Blerk is aiming the product at the likes of retail outlets, schools, gyms, and aged-care providers, and has more than 2000 units in production.
Van Blerk says one of his company's sensors can reveal that an enclosed space needs a ventilation system installed - but it could also be used to signal a simple measure, such as it's time for a teacher to open a classroom's windows to let some fresh air in.
Van Blerk initially bootstrapped his startup with money he made from cryptocurrency.
The seed funding announced this week comes from new investors including the Crown-backed NZ Growth Capital Partners' Aspire Fund, Impact Investment Fund (which features Ākina chairman Ben Kepes on its investment committee) and Greenside Energy Solutions (an insulation, heat pump and ventilation company that is also a Tether customer) is helping to bankroll the new product push.
The raise comes after something of a 24-month rollercoaster ride for the 4-year-old firm.
In late 2019, Tether seemed to be in clover. It won a highly competitive tender against 58 other firms, including Internet-of-Things (IoT) advocates Spark and Vodafone, to provide remote-monitoring of CO2 levels, humidity and a number of other elements in a number of Kāinga Ora (Housing NZ) properties.
Van Blerk was thrilled that his startup - which he says consists of "11 staff, all engineers with no salespeople" - had proved its chops against much larger competition to win the $7 million contract.
But then there was a privacy scare over the remote-monitoring pilot, which was designed to collect data for a healthier homes push and to measure, as van Blerk puts it, "if a home was raining inside because of condensation on the windows."
Van Blerk says opponents over-stated and mischaracterised levels of monitoring.
"Suddenly it was all over the media about how CO2 was going to be used to understand occupancy and kick people out of their houses and take their benefits away - and they'll know that you're doing Zumba in your lounge," he says.
The controversy abated after Kāinga Ora clarified the parameters of the remote monitoring project.
But worse was to come. The first installations were about to begin in early 2020 when the first lockdown hit.
After several delays, the pilot is now due to begin before the end of this year - but now scaled back to a $1.5m contract.
Tether is still the sole supplier, but the downsizing of the project was still "like a punch to the guts" says van Blerk - who notes the downsizing came after responsibility for the programme was moved from one Kāinga Ora division to another.
Then there was more pandemic grief in the form of supply chain disruption and shipping delays.
Tether manufactures locally but imports some components including the likes of microprocessors, resistors and capacitors.
"We've had some components that we'd had to swap out because I've had 52-week lead times on componentry.
"You can't run a business when you don't know if you can get hardware in 12 months.
"So that's where we've done some magic on our PCBs [printed circuit boards]. We've got three different prints, so you can choose the component that's available."
The approach has paid off. Tether is making 2000 EnviroQ units this month, with another 3000 set to be manufactured in the new year, followed by a batch of 5000 in May.
The manufacturing push is underpinned by the new capital, but van Blerk concedes it's still something of a leap of faith. "We're putting our balls on the line," the South African expat says.
The risk is minimised by a growing list of customers and partners, including the Building Research Association of NZ (Branz), Motu and the aforementioned Kāinga Ora, and the Ministry of Education, which is piloting the EnviroQ in a number of schools.
While there are many air quality detectors on the market, van Blerk can point to the fact his company beat 53 of its peers to the Kāinga Ora contract. And he says the new app for the EnviroQ is a point of difference in that it eschews jargon for air quality readouts that use everyday language.
The EnviroQ used for the pandemic push is the same model that won the Kāinga Ora contract. As well as CO2, it monitors temperature, ambient light, humidity, air pressure and ambient noise.
Each of the $303 units will run for around two years on six AAA batteries (there's also a mains power option) and connects to the internet not over cellular or Wi-Fi but a LPWAN (Low Powered Wide Area Network) technology).
A 12-month subscription to Tether's app is included with a new EnviroQ. After that, it costs $4.32 per unit per month.
It's now one of three gadgets in Tether's lineup, which also includes a specialised humidity and temperature monitoring device and the HotDrop for measuring energy consumption.
Does the science stack up?
In short, yes, with some qualifiers.
The relationship between CO2 saturation and Covid transmission is the realm of peer-reviewed academic research rather than Facebook scuttlebutt. Writing for academic portal The Conversation, York University chemistry professor and indoor air quality expert Professor Nicola Carslaw recently noted research shows high CO2 levels are not only a Covid transmission risk factor, but undermine concentration and people's ability to think.
Carslaw noted there are variables involved, such as the fact that larger people, and more active people, expel more air than smaller or inactive people. And she noted that a higher CO2 level can be caused by cooking. That means that in some enclosed spaces - think a cafe or an open-plan kitchen and living room - CO2 saturation is not necessarily a good proxy for Covid risk.
But the basic premise is straightforward.
"People emit carbon dioxide when they breathe and, all other things being equal, the more people there are in a room, the higher the carbon dioxide concentration. If the windows and doors in an occupied room are closed, carbon dioxide concentrations steadily rise. And if someone in the room has Covid, so will the concentration of coronavirus particles (or 'virions')," Carslaw wrote.
She noted that Belgian authorities recently made it mandatory for people who manage hotels, restaurants, bars, banquet halls and fitness centres to monitor carbon dioxide levels at their venues as a Covid safeguard.
The professor said CO2 levels should not exceed 1000 parts per million (ppm).
Van Blerk says his company's experience is that NZ buildings are often poorly ventilated and routinely exceed that level.
He adds, "Research indicates that with every additional 400 ppm of CO2 added to a room over fresh air, which averages around 410 ppm, the risk of transmissibility compounds. If the CO2 content in your building jumps from 410 ppm to 1610 ppm then the transmission risk of Covid would triple, for example."