The firm behind New Zealand’s workplace COVID-19 contact tracing tech takes aim at Texas and the US – The Dallas Morning News

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Contact tracing technology provider SaferMe, which played a role in helping New Zealand bring COVID-19 case counts down to zero, is setting its sights on Texas and the North American market.

The company’s tech, highlighted by the World Health Organization, is being used in 30 countries around the world. Along with a handful of other mitigation measures, SaferMe’s platform was chosen by the New Zealand government as the contact tracing solution for businesses in that country’s successful efforts thus far to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.

New Zealand’s government, which also contributed funding to SaferMe, effectively eliminated local spread of COVID-19 among its nearly 5 million residents. When the country has detected new cases in travelers, it has systematically managed those through mandated quarantine.

SaferMe set up shop in the U.S. earlier this year with its first office in Austin, where it has five employees. The company plans to expand its U.S. workforce in 2021.

And SaferMe already has dozens of clients in the U.S., including Fortune 500 companies and several schools, according to the company. The platform consists of an app where employee location data is tracked automatically; a wearable, Bluetooth-enabled keycard for employees who don’t have the app, and a central database for the employer. The company is scaling up the availability of the wearable, now in use in New Zealand and in a limited capacity in North America, for its U.S. clients.

SaferMe charges clients variable rates to use its platform, based on the size of the organization.

As American companies prepare to return to the workplace after the winter holidays, demand for robust contact tracing is expected to rise, said SaferMe founder and CEO Clint Van Marrewijk. Dallas-Fort Worth continues to lead the nation in the percentage of employees returning to their offices in Kastle Systems’ latest back-to-work barometer.

Van Marrewijk spoke with The Dallas Morning News about proximity safety technology’s rise to relevance in the COVID-19 era and how contact tracing efforts can be more effective through business adoption.

SaferMe founder and CEO Clint Van Marrewijk.
SaferMe founder and CEO Clint Van Marrewijk.(SaferMe)

How did SaferMe become the tech platform of choice in New Zealand for businesses to contact trace employees?

SaferMe is a proximity safety specialist. We have been doing this for a long time, really pushing the boundaries of what phones and technology can do to track where someone goes, what they’re about to do and who they’re about to interact with to provide that person with a warning at the right time and place.

We really believe technology will solve a lot of the safety and health issues that exist today. And in the future, we’ll look back and kind of be shocked that we did it any other way. Proximity safety got really popular really fast, and we happened to be in the right place at the right time.

Why choose Texas for your first U.S. office?

I like Texas. A Texan is halfway between a New Zealander and an American. And Austin’s a world-class city. It really is. And the most important thing for a company setting up is can you get your talented people to move there. Because you’re going to get talent from all across America, all across the world. In Austin, the quality of life is so high.

What are the benefits of employer-based contact tracing, as SaferMe is used for, as opposed to public or government-led contact tracing?

The key is saturation. With contact tracing tech, you’re trying to get as close to full saturation as you can across your population.

Now, if you are at the government level, you’re going to get to 15% to 20% of your population, best-case scenario. If you’re a business-focused product, you can get to 90% to 100%, inside a couple of weeks.

What that means is you’ve got the data to make smarter decisions and protect the right people quickly. And companies can actually stay operating and be able to pay the rest of their team members. The people on the ground want to come to work. They want to be safe and they want to make money. Still, they need to survive. And they need to come to work confident in good technology.

SaferMe pairs a mobile app and wearable keycard that leverage Bluetooth in order to log interactions between employees for contact tracing within companies.
SaferMe pairs a mobile app and wearable keycard that leverage Bluetooth in order to log interactions between employees for contact tracing within companies.(SaferMe)

A significant percentage of Americans have said they won’t comply with all aspects of contact tracing, according to Pew Research. How does tech like SaferMe work in an environment like that?

I think it’s important for the product to be incredibly well-designed for privacy. But with a business-focused product like ours, there is already a health and safety relationship between an employee and an employer. Americans do believe in freedom and privacy more than other nations. But they also believe in safety.

What you’re seeing is businesses that haven’t put this practice in place are becoming liable. And in many respects, that will drive adoption and solutions. It’s actually a genuinely good idea for it to be the responsibility of an employer to keep the employee safe.

The actual data in SaferMe is purged on the whole system after 42 days. That was originally designed based on the Ebola standard. What that means is there’s no location data stored. You cannot see where someone is. You don’t have the name of the person associated with any contact data. And the data is only typically in the hands of an HR professional or someone in your business that already has access to this type of information.

Businesses are already contact tracing in some way — assessing meeting schedules, figuring out who was on what floor. What we’re trying to do is make this super-efficient and fast so you can actually start taking precautions at symptom onset and not wait until three days later.

Do you think contact tracing saturation at the business level was part of New Zealand having so much success in eradicating COVID-19?

It was part of the story. There’s really three core things I would say that New Zealand’s done well. Other than good leadership, one would be effective quarantine at the border — a relatively simple measure. It’s been around for hundreds of years, but doing quarantine is a good idea. One is effective testing, and one is effective contact tracing.

With the U.S. now facing overflowing hospitals and uncontrolled outbreaks in so much of the country, is it too late for contact tracing to be effective?

No. To get back to normal, contact tracing is going to be needed. And that’s going to stretch over 2021 and into 2022, at least. So I wouldn’t say it’s too late. It’s never too late to do the right thing.

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