Life-saving light

Life-saving light

Kunal Sethi’s tech startup UVX aims to mass-cleanse hospitals and care homes with a safe form of ultraviolet light.

Engineering grad Kunal Sethi in UBC’s HATCH makerspace. Photo by Ajay Randhawa Photography.

Engineer Kunal Sethi is secretive about what, exactly, his revolutionary germ-zapper will look like. But it will be small, he says: a programmable, ceiling-mounted device roughly the size of a Wi-Fi router that quietly bathes entire rooms in ultraviolet light — potentially saving tens of thousands of lives each year.

But wait — isn’t UV light dangerous? Normally, yes, when the body is exposed to it in large amounts. So why is Sethi’s Vancouver-based startup UVX trying to put ultraviolet emitters in operating rooms and hospital corridors?

The secret lies in “far-UVC,” a type of UV light with a specific, tiny wavelength window (200-230 nanometers) that is harmless to humans but deadly to most germs. “It’s kind of a sweet spot,” Sethi explains. “Our outer layer of dead skin cells absorbs it, but it penetrates the cell nuclei of pathogens to inactivate them.”

UVX, which is part of the entrepreneurship@UBC program, plans to release its first device, the Zener, this fall. Sethi and UVX co-founder Saimir Sulaj — a native Albanian whom he met at a Vancouver hackathon — believe far-UVC technology could be the next major step in disease prevention.

“At first, we’ll focus on hospitals, long-term care homes and COVID-19 testing clinics,” Sethi explains. Now 26, he studied engineering but has had an interest in healthcare development since a botched surgery in his native Tanzania left him with chronic knee issues. When he came to UBC (with an International Leader of Tomorrow award), he co-founded the Tanzania Heart Babies Project to raise funds and awareness for children with congenital heart disease.

His career shifted to health technologies after a pandemic-era call with a friend, a hospital nurse, who casually mentioned having to scrub down surfaces two or three times. “We ended that conversation joking about an automatic robot disinfector,” Sethi says.

But the more Sethi researched, the less of a joke it seemed. He learned that even before the pandemic, around 100,000 people died in the United States each year of infections contracted at hospitals, which are breeding grounds for drug-resistant superbugs. When Sethi learned about far-UVC technology, it had already been well-researched and was even undergoing clinical trials. Yet other than a few early experiments (including a self-cleaning plane lavatory by Boeing), it had not really hit the market.

“I guess there wasn’t enough traction, enough interest before COVID-19,” Sethi says. “People often ask us, ‘Is this only applicable to COVID-19?’ And no, it’s not, because you’ll always have C. diff., H1N1, Salmonella, other infectious pathogens beyond SARS-CoV-2.”

Sethi believes the pandemic will leave us, if nothing else, with a new appreciation for health and hygiene — and a new awareness of the microscopic killers that prey on the sick and elderly.

He can see a future in which germ-killing lights shine in every bathroom, subway car and restaurant kitchen, quietly zapping our germs into oblivion.