What started as grief over a friend’s staph infection that quickly led to an emergency room visit and the friend’s untimely death, turned into brainstorming by Debra Vanderhoff and a new perspective on germs, healthcare, and innovation. The infection that gripped Vanderhoff’s friend had taken her to death within days of an ordinary day after coming into contact with a contaminated door handle, leading to an ear infection that eventually invaded her brain, Vanderhoff said. . She sees it as an avoidable loss and so began exploring ways to fight germs that are so common at commonly used touchpoints.
In 2019, Vanderhoff merged her innovative and creative skills, aiming to make a difference in the germ domain trying to limit losses, like her boyfriend’s. This meant that she started in an industry that was relatively new to her. She and her husband Chris Hickey “tweaked in the garage, put some parts together,” said Vanderhoff. “We’re not engineers, we’re not scientists — we’re just very resourceful people.”
The result, after much trial and error, is the GermPass, a decontamination chamber with UVC light for public contact points, launched by Vanderhoff’s company MicroLumix. According to Vanderhoff, the couple invested $3 million in research, development and production. Fast forward to February of this year, as the spread of germs and infectious diseases remain a widespread concern, they launched the technology. Now the company is partnering with Crothall Healthcare, a healthcare support services company whose leaders plan to incorporate the device into all their facilities and eventually promote it in their 620 nationwide accounts.
Vanderhoff, although not from the medical field himself, was aware that hands, in direct contact with touch points, can carry many germs – with an average of 3,200 different germs being transmitted through contact with contaminated hands or surfaces. And some of those germs can lead to infections. Addressing touchpoints seemed like a good opportunity, as “many communicable diseases are transmitted by touch, through the hands,” said Dr. Chanu Rhee, MD, an infectious disease physician and associate epidemiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. And it’s possible that staph infections, which can be spread through the hands, can lead to invasive infections and, in some severe cases, lead to death, Rhee said. It depends on the bug, but that’s one reason why proper hand washing can make a difference in infection prevention and control, he added.
Vanderhoff, who has a professional background in consulting and marketing and has formed start-ups with her husband in the past, is now the COO of MicroLumix. She points to her ability to connect with companies and “the drive to source things” as strengths that guided them through the development process.
But sourcing and communication outside of the couple’s garage came after much trial and error that engulfed the early days of the GermPass. When figuring out what kind of material and mechanics could be built, the couple bought parts, put them together, and often asked at the end, “What do we do with them?” followed by, “I don’t know. Let’s google it.” Searching for technical details of piece-assembly has helped them, including installing sensor-activated doors that open and close — inspired by garage doors and some trash cans. The product had to close because it must be sterile, says Vanderhoff. The process led her to “solve problems, draw things out, order some parts, glue things together.”
Finally, with the help of a neighbor and Navy veteran with electronics experience, she installed a trash can with UVC light. UVC radiation is a disinfectant known to reduce the spread of bacteria, according to the FDA, and has been proven to “destroy the outer protein coating of the SARS Coronavirus,” although the FDA lists potential safety concerns. For Vanderhoff’s product, power came from a decommissioned drone battery. Then, after purchasing a portable ATP germination testing device, the way was clear to test the ability of the germicidal chamber.
After they got to a point where they sorted out the components and conceptually designed how the system would work, Vanderhoff used her talent for sourcing to source engineers for the lighting and design side and let them work on the construction of the product that she had visualized.
Targeting healthcare institutions has been a priority for Vanderhoff from the start. Commenting on Crothall Healthcare’s investment in the technology, Crothall National Director of Standardization, Innovation and Global Support Eric Anderson explains, “This impacts the patient experience, knowing that hospitals are committed to protecting their patients, visitors and staff.” The GermPass will also be used on door handles of all patient rooms and other office doors at eight locations of Florida’s Angel Kids Pediatrics beginning in late August, according to Dr. Ashraf Affan, chairman of the center.
Vanderhoff hopes that one day her technology can serve other touchpoints, such as elevator buttons, ATMs and shopping carts.