News that 5000 ventilation systems and 2500 ventilation monitors will be sent to schools is bittersweet for a local tech company - which was shunned despite its high production capacity, and the fact its technology was selected for an earlier Kāinga Ora (Housing NZ) pilot.
Tether chief executive Brandon van Blerk says his Auckland-based firm did not get to pitch for the contract for 2500 monitoring systems, which he understands was won by an overseas manufacturer (via a local reseller), with the first units arriving in March. [Update: the Ministry of Education says it bought 2500 Aranet4 portable CO2 monitoring devices, made by Latvian company SAF Tehnika, which were delivered in December via Auckland reseller Butler Techsense].
The ventilation system contract was won by Samsung, which will deliver 500 air purifiers next month, with the remaining 4500 by June.
Experts see ventilation monitors as a key safeguard as children return to class under red, and the expected surge in Omicron infections. Products like Tether's Covid Care monitor carbon dioxide levels. A CO2 buildup in a crowded space is a warning sign that there is not good enough airflow, heightening the risk of Covid spread. Monitors can sound an alert - so a teacher can up the aircon, or simply open more windows.
Van Blerk stresses that his firm is still ready to assist with the ventilation rollout.
But the CEO wants answers about how the tender was run, which company was selected, the timing of the order - especially given no hardware will arrive in time for the start of term one, and most not until mid-year - and why an offer by his company to donate sensors last year was ignored (as things stand, the school year will begin without any sensors).
The situation echoes a situation early in the pandemic when the Government awarded a $38m contract to create a new vaccine management system to the multinationals Deloitte and Salesforce. Ian McCrae, CEO of the incumbent - Auckland-based Orion Health - was furious his company was not involved in a truncated tender process, where public health emergency provisions were used to skirt Rule 16 of MBIE's Procurement Guidelines, which make it a "priority outcome to increase the number of New Zealand businesses contracting directly to Government."
Van Blerk has been trying to establish if any local firms were even considered for the emergency tender. He received documents under the Official Information Act about the process, but key passages were redacted - including the identity of the party awarded the contract.
"Tether was not approached by MOE to tender for this bulk order of 2500 sensors," the CEO told the Herald this morning. (The Tether boss did not solicit coverage. The Herald approached him for comment after Covid-19 Response Minister announced the air cleaner and ventilation monitoring rollout this morning.)
"The first we heard about it was in the media. As a local company and employer capable of manufacturing 20,000 units a month - more than enough to fill the contract - we approached our local MP, Chlöe Swarbrick."
The Green agreed to prod the Government for answers, and on December 14 she submitted a written question to the Ministry of Education and Covid Response Minister Chris Hipkins.:
"Had any effort been made to procure CO2 monitors in Aotearoa New Zealand, before, during or after an international company was engaged in potential contract for their provision?"
Hipkins reply was due by December 22, but Swarbrick said this morning that she had still not received any response.
The Minister's office could not immediately confirm if he had answered Swarbrick's question. A spokesperson said Hipkins would not answer Herald questions. "This will be one for MBIE or the MoE to come back on – the Minister isn't involved in tender processes," they said. MBIE, which manages the Government tender process, did not immediately respond.
Van Blerk didn't come down in the last shower. In 2019, his four-year-old firm won a $7m Kāinga Ora tender for monitoring moisture levels in state housing. Tether beat out 58 other contenders, including IoT advocates Spark and Vodafone, in the process. His investors include Crown venture capital agency NZGCP.
His idea was that his company's $303 EnvironQ monitor - which comes with an app what displays easily digestible reports - could be adapted for classrooms.
Although it was ultimately scaled back, van Blerk said the Kāinga Ora project gave his firm a year's start on the back in sourcing parts, and learning to navigate pandemic shortages with a flexible design that could take alternative components from multiple suppliers.
The Ministry of Education did include Tether's product in a 2019 trial, but the Kiwi firm did not make the shortlist for a subsequent ventilation monitoring system tender.
Van Blerk said he accepted that outcome, but still wants to know why the Ministry did not even approach his company about the latest tender for 2500 CO2 monitors.
He adds, "We did offer to donate 50 sensors to schools last year because there was nothing in classrooms, but our gesture was declined."
In the interim, the Ministry approached van Blerk about pairing Tether's software with the sensors it had bought from another party, but the CEO says that was not possible because the sensors were "dumb" (rather than "smart" or easily customisable) and the process would have required too much training.
The Ministry of Education tender document sighted by the Herald said that the standard of ventilation in any given classroom depended on the building code at the time it was constructed. "Our initial estimate is that up to 80 per cent of our teaching spaces are able to meet the WHO and CDC recommendations for naturally ventilated spaces." Good ventilation management could turn a further 10 per cent of classrooms into low-risk spaces.
With Hipkins response already more than a month into overtime, Swarbrick says she will keep pushing for answers.
"We're completely unclear about the procurement process for these C02 monitors and why thousands and thousands were purchased from overseas - with the wait-times, shipping costs and carbon emissions associated - when there's evident capacity locally to produce NZ-made, world-leading specification monitors," the Green MP said this morning.
"That's why it's critical we understand whether the Ministry did any work at all to understand what was available domestically, let alone comparing it to what they ended up getting, before signing a substantive contract for offshore goods."
She added, There's a number of other decisions around procurement related to Covid already made if not in train, so when it comes to securing supply chains for the likes of PPE and other necessities, the Greens have always and will continue to champion NZ-made as the most resilient and easy to upscale, because it literally means making these things for New Zealanders, by New Zealanders."
While he waits for answers, van Blerk says Tether has plenty on its plate.
"Demand for Covid Care is high among the private school sector, Kāinga Ora and the business community. And we are exploring potential opportunities with the New South Wales Government, which recently reached out to us," he said.
He says Tether's cloud and app-based dashboards, which are designed to replace CO2 jargon with easy-to-follow language and graphics, are not matched by competitors.