In this interview, Jose Pozo, CTO of EPIC, speaks with Nick Volet, CTO of UV Medico, a company developing a new generation of disinfection lamps for occupied spaces based on far UVC light.
Fascinated by physics and light from an early age, Nick started a BSc in physics in 2004 at the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland. This included a one-year exchange program at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh (USA), where he worked in the field of astrophysics. He then enrolled in an MSc in Physics, which involved work as a research assistant in Nicolas Grandjean’s Laboratory of Advanced Semiconductors for Photonics and Electronics at EPFL as well as at the University from Houston, where he completed his master’s project on solar cells based on quantum confinement. .
This was followed by a PhD, which focused on optical mode control in long wavelength vertical cavity surface emitting lasers (VCSELs), after which Nick spent three years as postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he worked with John Bowers, a world-renowned researcher on silicon photonic integrated circuits for data communications and telecommunications. This experience of several years in academia with close industrial partners led him to a senior R&D engineer position at OE Solutions, a leading supplier of optoelectronic transceivers.
Nick returned to Europe in 2019, this time to Denmark with his wife and daughter to take up a tenure-track assistant professorship at Aarhus University, where in addition to teaching photonics he now leads research programs on improving the accuracy, cost and energy efficiency of chip-level photonic technologies for industrial applications.
Over the next few months, the first wave of COVID-19 hit and Nick began to think about how his background in photonics could be put to good use. Contrary to his research mainly centered on the near infrared, he turns to the ultraviolet. Coincidentally, he met Peter Johansen, an experienced innovator and marketer with a track record of several successful scale-ups in the medical and smart lighting industries. While Peter and Nick were thinking, they came across a peer-reviewed research paper from David Brenner’s group at Columbia University reporting the use of “far UVC” light at a wavelength of 222 nm to “safely” deactivate the coronavirus.
The main advantage of this technique is that while 222 nm light can effectively deactivate viruses, it is safe to use in occupied spaces because this light cannot penetrate the upper layer of the eye or skin. This is a groundbreaking discovery because although UV light has been used for over a century to disinfect environments by killing viruses and bacteria, most UV rays are harmful to human tissue, which means that people cannot be present in the room when the light is on.
After verifying the authenticity of the research and interviewing the industry, in 2020 Nick and Peter co-founded UV Medico with the goal of developing and distributing human-safe disinfection devices based on far-UVC light. The idea is to make this technology widely available with a low cost and small footprint so that it can be integrated into conventional luminaires and installed in all interior spaces used by the public.
After incorporating the company, they set up a lab space in Aarhus with setups to perform optical characterizations, and decided to partner with virologist Christian Holm (now company CMO), who is a coronavirus expert and was able to test the effectiveness of far -UVC lamps.
Technology: A major drawback of conventional germicidal UVC lamps is that they are harmful to human and animal tissue. Their wavelengths, usually greater than 250 nm, penetrate the upper layers of the skin and eyes and are absorbed by living cells below, which can lead to DNA mutations. In contrast, UV Medico’s UV222™ lamp is based on an excimer called krypton chloride and has a central emission at 222 nm. This far-UVC light is very effective against viruses such as SARS-CoV-2. Viruses are made of proteins, and most proteins strongly absorb light at wavelengths below 230 nm, which converts to heat that inactivates viruses, including their ability to infect and spread disease. For the same reason, far-UVC light is harmless to human and animal skin and eyes. Their respective top layers are made up of protein-dense dead cells – and the same can be said of the top layer of the eye (the cornea). These proteins absorb light at 222 nm before it can penetrate the top layer and damage living tissue below.
Security issues: Deep UVC excimer lamps based on krypton chloride also release secondary emissions around 235 nm and 250 nm, which are harmful to humans. For this reason, Medico UV lamps incorporate a band-pass filter, patented by their partner Ushio Inc., which only passes light at approximately 222 nm and blocks all other unwanted radiation.
As well as having a safety filter, the UV222™ are fitted and installed only by UV Medico certified installers to ensure that the lamp is programmed to emit only non-harmful doses. The Medico UV lamp therefore operates in accordance with all relevant Danish, European and worldwide directives concerning ultraviolet radiation.
Building Awareness: Since knowledge about the benefits of far-UVC light for disinfection is not yet widespread in the industry, UV Medico has implemented various strategies to increase awareness of the technology. These include attending and sponsoring events to discuss the health benefits of far UVC within the community and partnering with scientists willing to test and publish papers as a way to deepen knowledge. In the spirit of innovation through cooperation, the company also lends its lamps to any company wishing to carry out tests and has partnered with hospitals in Denmark wishing to carry out trials.
Nick is convinced of the future success of UV Medico for the following reasons:
Continued search: UV Medico is researching the development of smaller, more energy efficient far UVC sources, which will further reduce the cost and extend the life of the device. Additionally, through corporate partnerships, they are in regular contact with industry requirements regarding, for example, the need for alternative lamp form factors, the need for pulsed light, a higher beam angle wide or the ability to operate in a harsh environment.
Future applications: Although the hottest application right now is for COVID-19, there are a host of other contamination issues, such as animals in the agriculture industry, disinfection of bacteria in drinking water, and fresh fruits and vegetables. In fact, the company is now establishing partnerships with many farmers around the world. Developments to manufacture smaller and more energy efficient sources have huge potential on the future use of the technology in the medical sector, for example, for wound care and continued validation of the safety of far UVC will increase inevitably public acceptance.
Site: Located a five-minute drive from the Aarhus University campus, the company is well placed to recruit future talent and has a long-term prospect of building a photonics ecosystem in central Denmark.
Distribution network: The company has set up a global distribution network and is now represented in around thirty countries in Africa, Americas, Asia-Pacific, Europe and the Middle East.
Management team: Finally, the company has a strong and diverse management team capable of promoting the company and its technology in every link of the supply chain. Peter Johansen, Chairman of the Board, has over 35 years of experience in the lighting industry and a global network of suppliers and customers. Anders Samuelsen, CEO, has held six ministerial positions in the Danish government, most recently as Minister of Foreign Affairs, and has invaluable experience in negotiating and understanding business culture in Europe and abroad. Christian Holm, Chief Health Officer (CHO), is an associate professor in virology and immunology, whose expertise will be very useful to them in the discovery of techniques to combat the spread of future pandemic viruses. Finally, there is Nick himself with extensive experience in chip-level photonic technologies for industrial applications.
If you were doing it again, what would you do differently?
I think it’s important for young people to see firsthand how technology is being used in the industry to create positive societal impact. Of course, students need their degrees and good grades, but they also need industry internship opportunities while in school so that the experience can be recycled into the next stage of their career. At Aarhus University, for example, students can obtain their ECTS credits by working a few hours a week in a company. When I was a student 15 years ago, these types of internships were not available but if I started again, I would like to have access to these types of internships. Who knows, depending on experience, I might choose to go into engineering.
Written by Jose Pozo, Chief Technology Officer at EPIC (European Photonics Industry Consortium).