Following the death of a man in Texas who was infected with Ebola, hospitals across the country are bracing themselves for the possibility of having to manage the deadly disease.

Which means a startup called Xenex is particularly busy right now. The Texas-based company created a virus-zapping robot that can effectively stop the spread of the disease by using light to disinfect contaminated rooms. It's already being used in 250 hospitals across the country and interest in the robots in recent weeks has surged, according to the company.

One of Xenex's customers is Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas, where Thomas Duncan, the first person ever diagnosed with Ebola in the United States was being treated. Duncan passed away on Wednesday. Requests for comment from the hospital were not immediately returned.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and loved ones," said Xenex CEO Morris Miller. "Infectious diseases like Ebola are terrible and tragic--which is why the mission of Xenex since day one has been to save lives and reduce suffering by destroying the deadly pathogens that cause healthcare-associated infections."

Miller said he doesn't know specifically how the hospital staff used his ultraviolet light-emitting robots to prevent the spread of the virus while Duncan was undergoing treatment. But in an interview with Inc., he described how hospitals use his robots to exterminate a long list of bacterial and viral pathogens.

Hospital housekeepers can wheel the robot into an empty hospital room and leave it there to disinfect the space in minutes. Staff can also bring medical equipment and beds into an enclosed space with the robot, then program it to run through a cycle.

"It looks like a car wash for beds. But it's a light wash," Miller explained. 

Robots at Work

There's nothing new about using UV light as a disinfectant. The practice dates back to the early twentieth century. However, Miller said that Xenex's robots use a number of UV light-enabled methods to destroy pathogens that mercury vapor lamps--the most commonly used UV lights--don't.

The Xenex robot emits pulses of flashing light containing a broad spectrum--broader than the UV light that comes from a mercury lamp. In short, this allows the Xenex robots to wreck havoc on--and kill--cells in a number ways

"MRSA, VRE, Ebola, HIV, you name it. It's going to be susceptible somewhere along the disinfectant spectrum," Miller said.

It sounds pretty destructive, which is the point. (Xenex has built-in safety measures, which involve monitoring body heat and motion, to make sure that the machine doesn't fire while a person is in the room.)

Xenex goes after some of the hardest-to-kill pathogens, including C. difficile, which is linked to 14,000 American deaths each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It takes Xenex five minutes to kill C. difficile. In comparison, it can kill Ebola in 90 seconds.

Xenex vs. Ebola

Miller would like to see Xenex take on Ebola where it has hit the hardest--in Africa. 

"We are in discussions with U.S. government representatives about an appropriate response and use of Xenex technology in West Africa," he said. He also said that his company has offered the robots to African charities at a discount. Typically one robot costs $104,000.

In the locations where Xenex's robots have been deployed in the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom, hospitals have seen infection rates drop by as much as 50 to 80 percent, according to Miller.

He says he often reflects on the fact that that number translates into lives saved.

"That's not a notion that we ever had in the technology business," Miller said, referring to his previous job as a co-founder at Rackspace Hosting, a cloud services business. "I'm usually up at four in the morning now because I'm thinking about what do we do today to stop the infections."

Published on: Oct 10, 2014