The tech startup developed a UV light device to safely disinfect air and surfaces
Kunal Sethi has been frustrated with the global healthcare system since he was a teenager in high school. Back in Tanzania, he was working towards playing competitive basketball as a career—until a misdiagnosis by a renowned surgeon cost him three knee surgeries and crushed his dreams.
And now, those early days of frustration have seen him launch a new tech company that has the potential to save thousands of lives. UVX, a tech startup founded by Sethi and business partner Saimir Sulaj, helps businesses reduce infection risk with a proprietary disinfection device developed by its co-founders.
Sethi first arrived in Vancouver in 2012, when he came to UBC as an ILOT scholar in the faculty of applied sciences. While completing his undergrad, he co-founded a charity called the Tanzania Heart Babies Project to help children suffering from poor health care in his home country. “We partnered with the Ministry of Health in Tanzania, the Indian High Commission in Tanzania and the national hospital to raise money and awareness for children with heart disease,” he says, “because the country did not have a single pediatric cardiac surgeon.” That charity raised over $32,000 and sponsored 10 open-heart surgeries.
Sethi credits his pull toward entrepreneurship to his own childhood, when he noticed that he was being sent to school with a packed lunch, where his friends were coming to school with pocket money. “I also wanted to get pocket money,” he contends. He knew kids in Tanzania loved to play with marbles, so Sethi started polishing and trading them in Ziploc bags for cash or other goods and services.
At the time, he says, he didn’t realize that he was building a business, but he never forgot that thrill of entrepreneurship. When Sethi graduated from UBC in 2017, he launched a fully bootstrapped digital marketing agency with his friend Saimir Sulaj. The pair spent weekends talking to customers, writing blog posts and coding, until their business took a hit with COVID. The gradual loss of clients prompted the entrepreneurs to close the chapter on that business, but they soon grew curious about one specific statistic: over 80 percent of all COVID-related deaths in Canada were taking place in senior homes.
“That’s eight out of 10 people,” Sethi says with a hint of incredulity. “As engineers, we knew UV light could be very, very effective [in killing viruses].” But there was one limitation: UV light can also be harmful for humans. “So then,” Sethi adds, “we became curious about a way to make it safe.”
In 2021, the two friends launched UVX by channeling what CEO Sethi calls a “sweet spot” in UV light technology: 222nm far-UVC light. It’s a form of UV light that can safely disinfect an entire room (effectively killing germs and viruses like COVID-19, Influenza, E. coli and more) with humans present.
As a company, UVX offers a smart ceiling device called Zener that can disinfect air and surfaces throughout the day, along with a software interface that can prepare compliance reports on the efficacy of UVX’s hardware in a particular environment. The success of this solution has set Sethi and Sulaj on a path to helping businesses reduce infection risk, starting with senior care homes.
In 2022, UVX scored a $165,000 investment from Telus Pollinator Fund and Spring Activator. This year, the startup joined UBC’s Hatch accelerator and won a national impact challenge organized by AGE-WELL and SE health. The Zener device has already been deployed in multiple senior care homes, says Sethi, as well as in UBC’s Faculty of Medicine. Most recently, UVX garnered attention from Halifax-based nonprofit Research Nova Scotia, which has allocated $2.8 million into clinical trials that will be led by the Nova Scotia health authority.
The investment, says Sethi, marks a major milestone for UVX: “It has huge potential for the technology to actually make a big difference and a big impact in the senior care setting, and even beyond that, within healthcare... If having UVX installed means that one less senior gets sick and dies, basically at that point, we’ve made it.”