Xenex’s Bug-Fighting Robots Gain Traction with Hospitals

In the war against microscopic pathogens, some hospitals are turning to drones.

But the weapons in these robots, made by San Antonio’s Xenex Disinfection Services, are not bullets, but pulsating xenon-based UV light capable of neutralizing microbes that kill about 100,000 people each year.

“We can show beyond a reasonable doubt that using Xenex reduces the pathogens in the hospital environment,” says Morris Miller, Xenex’s CEO. “In 10 minutes, we can disinfect a hospital room. The bottom line is that patients end up not getting sick.”

Xenex, founded in 2009, announced it has raised $11.3 million in venture capital Friday. Investors included Battery Ventures, Targeted Technologies, RK Ventures, which had been an existing investor. The capital will be used for product development, international expansion, and increasing the company’s U.S. sales force.

The problem is this: Although hospitals spend much time and money on efforts to keep facilities clean—from hand wash campaigns to sterilization protocols—deadly superbugs such as MRSA and C. Diff persist. In particular, C. Diff can remain on surfaces such as bed rails or door handles for six months, Miller says. About two million patients get infections during their stay at hospitals.

Increased use of antibiotics has only made the pathogens resistant. “As the pathogens basically become smarter, and antibiotic resistant, it’s important to find ways to stop the pathogens before they infect people,” Miller says.

Xenex’s robots, which bear a certain resemblance to R2D2, are wheeled into hospital rooms. Its head rises up and the “neck” is where the xenon light resides. It emits a series of flashes with UV light that essentially “hits pathogens where they are vulnerable,” Miller says.

Data on hospital-acquired infection rates is spotty, as many healthcare providers don’t report consistently on their own infections, and don’t go out of their way to publicize their infection rates. But a study published in the August 2013 issue of the American Journal of Infection Control reported that Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton, MA, saw the rate of hospital-acquired C. diff dropped by 53 percent after it began using the Xenex robots. The Journal of Infection Prevention reported in June that Cone Health in Greensboro, NC, saw similar levels of reduction in its rate of hospital-acquired MRSA.

Epidemiologists Mark Stribich and Julie Stachowiak, who are chief scientific officer and chief epidemiologist, respectively, were volunteering with AIDS prevention efforts in Russia when they came across xenon light being used to neutralize airborne tuberculosis.

The company beta tested its device at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, which is now a customer, and briefly set up the company in Austin before the medical community and city financial incentives prompted a move to San Antonio. Other customers include hospitals at the University of California at Los Angeles and Stanford University as well as Boston Children’s Hospital.

Miller, a San Antonio investor and co-founder of the local cloud-computing company Rackspace, joined Xenex in January 2012. Miller also founded two firms, Sequel Ventures and Cutstone Ventures, which are both investors in Xenex. Most of Xenex’s investors are local angels.

Miller says Xenex, which currently employs 75 people, is looking to expand its customer base overseas and that it receives an average of 40 inquiries a month from foreign companies and governments. He says they have trials underway but declined to say where, adding that he expected an announcement of new business would be made by the end of the year.

Miller says the robots, which sell for $80,000, have become cherished members of the hospital staff, christened with names and given ID badges. Among the Xenex family include Violet, Ray, and the Germinator. Company spokeswoman Melinda Hart says: “We have a hospital in Shreveport that calls its two robots Allie and Gator.”

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