Bright idea: Ottawa's Illumisoft touts virus-killing UV light solution

Brett Nicholds
Brett Nicholds is CEO of Illumisoft, a local firm hoping to market a system that uses UV light to kill germs such as the coronavirus. Photo courtesy Illumisoft

An Ottawa manufacturing company is hoping its “gamble” to develop a system that emits germ-killing ultraviolet rays will put it light years ahead of the competition in the race to combat the novel coronavirus.

Engineers at Illumisoft, a seven-year-old firm that makes LED light fixtures, have spent the past few months creating a new product called SaniLume ​– a device resembling a regular light fixture that’s designed to hang high above people’s heads and direct a beam of UV light across a room.

The system emits UV light in the 254-nanometre spectrum – a range that has been used for decades to kill pathogens such as viruses, bacteria and mould. Company officials say the technology destroys up to 99 per cent of all germs that come in contact with the UV rays as the system circulates air through a room dozens of times an hour. 

Illumisoft CEO Brett Nicholds says executives at the 10-person firm headquartered in Little Italy originally started thinking about using UV light to kill the coronavirus during a brainstorming session a few months ago. 

While the technology isn’t new, Nicholds says company founder and chief product officer Leslie Howe “locked himself away in his lab for a couple of weeks” to come up with a safer, more efficient system that keeps UV rays away from a room’s occupants while cycling air through the germ-kill zone at a much higher rate than previous systems.

Nicholds hopes the SaniLume system becomes a key weapon in the fight against COVID-19 as more offices, schools and other organizations start to reopen from the lockdown.

Market battle?

“You’re still going to have to spend time in these spaces at some point, and the mitigation (measures now in place aren’t) eradicating anything,” he says, arguing that Illumisoft’s system is far better-suited to widespread use than older UV technology that requires bulky machines or is unsafe to operate when a room is occupied.

As a small, Ottawa-based company, Illumisoft could face an uphill battle getting SaniLume a place in the spotlight, however. 

Multinational players are also looking at branching out into systems that use UV light as a disinfect – Atlanta-based lighting equipment giant Acuity Brands, for example, recently inked a deal with Ushio America that will see it install Ushio’s UV disinfectant modules in products such as ceiling- and wall-mounted light fixtures.

Nicholds – who spent decades as an executive at his family’s former business, Dollco Integrated Print Solutions, before joining Illumisoft two years ago – concedes the company took “a bit of a gamble” on the new project. But he believes Howe has come up with a “secret sauce” that will set SaniLume apart from the competition.

“I think there’s lots of room for lots of different people (in the market),” Nicholds says.

He says potential customers are eager to try the product, which was developed with support from private investors. The company has hired Ottawa-based consultants Global Public Affairs to help it navigate through the labyrinth of various government funding programs as it seeks to raise the millions of dollars needed to produce SaniLume on a mass scale. 

Nicholds says the firm is also working closely with governments and agencies such as the Standards Council of Canada to ensure that the system complies with all health and safety regulations. He says once funding is in place, SaniLume could be rolling off the assembly line by the end of this year, adding he’s hoping to hire as many as 50 new employees as production ramps up.  

“Now I need to be able to convince either (private) investors or government funding sources that there’s huge demand for this product,” Nicholds says. “There’s a bunch of opportunities here to take it to market – we’re just trying to figure out the best one.”