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Posted on: 05/26/2020

Collin Cavote, founder of Biome, on improving office air quality through bioengineering

Kruze Consulting's Founders and Friends Podcast · Collin Cavote, founder of Biome, on improving office air quality through bioengineering

Collin Cavote

Collin Cavote

Founder and CEO - Biome


Collin Cavote of Biome - Podcast Summary

The founder of Biome, Collin Cavote, joins Kruze Consulting’s podcast to discuss how bioengineering and careful indoor plants can positively improve air quality, worker safety, and productivity.

Collin Cavote of Biome - Podcast Transcript

Singer: (singing) It’s Kruze Consulting Founders and Friends with your host, Scotty Orn.
Scott: Welcome to the Founders and Friends podcast with Scott Orn at Kruze Consulting. And before we get to an awesome podcast with Collin Cavote, my buddy, of Biome, a quick shout out to Rippling. Rippling does payroll, it does benefits. It has an awesome IT infrastructure product that allows you to provision new team members super-fast, and automatically it saves a ton of time. In these times, if you have to de-permission a couple people, which is unfortunate, it does help do that too. So, it’s a lot faster. But we just love it for payroll, we love it for benefits, and the IT provisioning system is like Okta light. It’s just really, really nice. So, startups should really be checking out Rippling. And also, quick shout out to the Kruze Consulting tax team. We are cranking on taxes. Huge shout out. Also, a huge shout out to Christine for cranking on those SBA PPP loans. Been a lot of work, but the team is doing awesome. So, thank you, Christine. And now welcome to Collin Cavote from Biome. Collin, we met, gosh, probably a month ago. And I love what you’re doing, and so I wanted to have you on the podcast. You’re like a good news podcast. So maybe you can introduce yourself and tell people how you had the idea for Biome.
Collin: For sure. Thanks, Scott, for having me on this show. Really excited to talk. It’s a really timely environment to be discussing health and wellness. There’s no doubt about it. And I think one of the really cool stories through all of this is that nature has a lot of solutions for us that can help us live healthier lives in our indoor spaces. I, for one, and working from home a lot more. I think a lot of listeners probably are feeling the burn of being stuck indoors and breathing all of that recycled air. So, what we’ve done at Biome is try to mimic natural systems. So, we study biomemedics, which is basically we study biological systems with the goal of mimicking them. And it turns out that natural systems have already created really powerful ways to clean air, to rewild the microbiome of the spaces that we live in. So, what we do in Oakland, and now manufacturer for sale around the Bay area and throughout California, are fully automated living wall systems that purify air by leveraging the microbiomes that live on plant roots. So, we basically feed these billions of microbes your air pollution and they naturally metabolize it, and we just spit out fresh air back into the room. So not only are we filtering air, we’re actually generating good things for your air. So where mechanical filters leave off, we’re actually adding oxygen, we’re adding beneficial VOCs, and we’re also… This new frontier of things is rewilding. So, we’re emitting these beneficial bacteria into your room, which then compete with pathogenic compounds and viruses and bacteria. So rather than using antibacterials to sterilize a space, we’re actually creating this biological diversity in your home or office, which, it leads to better productivity, it leads to better cognitive function, way better health impacts throughout the day, and longevity as well.
Scott: And you didn’t even talk about how beautiful it makes the room. It really adds a lot of beauty, but we’ll talk about that in a second. So there’s a ton to unpack there, and this is why I thought this is such an interesting concept. So first let’s talk, like it didn’t even occur to me about the bacteria. So, I want to cover that in a second. But just the air quality. We all sit in big offices, ever since I talked to you I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and you’re breathing the same air all day long. Essentially, the oxygen quality goes down throughout the day, right?
Collin: Not even through the day. Through 15 minutes, CO2 levels can skyrocket. And yeah, a little extra backstory here. The average American spends 90% of every day indoors, a huge part of that’s in the office, a huge part of that’s at home. What we see in conference rooms, though, in particular, when you get two, even three people in a moderately sized conference room, the carbon dioxide levels will go from, if they’re good, 600 parts per million, it’s a way of measuring the number of molecules in air, up to over 1,500 parts per million in about 15 minutes. And that can even go up to 2,000 parts per million in a half hour. What that means, though, from Harvard School of Public Health, is a 50% drop in cognitive function from 600 to 1,500. So, in 15 to 20 minutes, we’re seeing CO2 levels that literally make your team members and you 50% less creative, 50% lower memory, and 50% less ability to communicate effectively with others. So, when we’re combining team members to solve business decisions, we really need to be thinking about what people are inhaling.
Scott: It’s so funny, because we’ve all had that. You’ve been in the conference room for half an hour or 45 minutes and everyone’s tired, everyone can’t wait to get out of there. So, you had this really productive discussion, and then all of the decisions that get made at the end are rushed. And from what you’re saying, they’re also made without our full mental capacity because we’re breathing so much CO2, right?
Collin: 100%. Absolutely. That’s scientifically why people get tired in a conference room. Our brains are just starting to check out because we don’t have the oxygen that they need. Our brains use about 20% of all the air that we inhale. We actually inhale a huge amount of air. A seven-foot cubed space every day is what we consume. And when you think about drinking two liters of water a day versus a seven by seven by seven-foot room of air, the sheer quantity of it is really mind boggling.
Scott: Wow. Wait, my math isn’t very good. That’s 49 times seven.
Collin: Yeah.
Scott: What is that? Is that 3,500 cubic square feet of air?
Collin: Sounds about right.
Scott: Can you repeat that?
Collin: Sounds about right, yeah.
Scott: Well, but I can’t do math like that on the fly. That’s really amazing. So how much Biome does it take to freshen up a one-person office? How much does it take to do a conference room?
Collin: Well, a little backstory. Unlike traditional green walls or other living wall systems, our premise has been to shy away from customization, and we really focused on productization. So, we make a landscape section and a portrait section. They hang on the wall like a mirror or a painting. They plug in, we connect them to WIFI, they grow these beautiful hydroponic plants out of them. They’ve got their own embedded grow light that’s timed to your day and where you’re at. And so, it’s this complete, computerized plug and play system. That’s why we really focus on these standard sizes, so that we can ensure success. What we’ve seen is that one unit can generally handle 800 to 1,000 square foot space, but it all depends on the level of pollutant, it depends on whether windows are getting opened or not, if doors are being left open, and the number of people in use of the space. So, we’re not super prescriptive on the number of units. What we see a lot happening on the architecture interior design side, and when we work with corporate wellness people and corporate real estate folks, a lot of times this is just being used as a decorative element that also provides a lot of value.
Scott: That’s amazing.
Collin: Yeah. We’re not necessarily meeting environmental health and safety regulations and all that yet. We do want to be able to show that, yeah, you can actually turn your HVAC down if you have Taiga in your space. By the way, I don’t think we mentioned Taiga. Taiga’s the name of our product line that does all this incredible stuff.
Scott: I want to hear more about how it’s WIFI enabled and grows. But let’s talk about the bacteria now, because that is equally surprising. And I do know that there’s bacteria everywhere and there’s good bacteria and bad bacteria, but maybe can you talk about this, and how the bacteria that Taiga is generating competes with the bad bacteria?
Collin: For sure. This starts going back millions of years. We are animals. We grew up in river valleys and deltas and planes, and we have evolved with these microbes that are everywhere. We have more microbiology in us, in our bodies, than our own cells. So, if we deny this fact, we’re really just fighting ourselves. And when we embrace this fact, we can actually enhance our wellbeing tremendously and our environmental wellbeing. So, if we embrace the fact that there are bacteria on everything, the next thing is understanding what those bacteria are. A lot of people are talking about microbiomes lately, like the microbiome of the gut. What are those bacteria that help us break down food? But it turns out that our skin has its own microbiome of specialized bacteria. And it turns out that the table that you work on has its own microbiome, and the floor has a microbiome and your ceiling fan. Every surface has its own collection of organisms. It turns out, though, that soil is one of the oldest and most diverse and incredibly balanced microbiomes out there. And so, when we get soil under our skin or work with it, we see that kids have lower autoimmune issues. They have lower allergies developed. And we know intuitively that when we eat probiotics and yogurts and things like that, it helps our guts and it helps our bodies. Well, when we sterilize things, when we try to clean out all of the bacteria… Just imagine a table, you sterilize it. What you’ve done is you’ve just made this massive landscape with no natural competition that only the strongest organism could survive on, the most pathogenic organism could survive on. And it doesn’t have any competition because you just killed it all. And so, like humans have often done, we’ve overcorrected. And what we’re doing is indiscriminately destroying our microbiomes, which makes us more vulnerable, which is why Kaiser Permanente has banned anti-microbial surfaces in their hospitals. There are leading research organizations and hospitals that are saying, whoa, this is actually creating superbugs, not helping us live better. So, the opposite approach is diversify. Bombard the ecosystem with beneficials so that the pathogens can’t even compete and survive. And that’s where folks at Lawrence Berkeley National Labs and numerous universities… University of Oregon’s looking into the microbiome of the built environment. If we live 90% of our lives indoors, we really need to understand the entire microbial community there.
Scott: I feel like you’re pioneering a new genre of health hacking or something like that. I feel like this is a chapter in the next Tim Ferriss book, where people have optimized their diets and they’ve optimized how much fluids they drink, and exercise. But just optimizing their surroundings when working or even at home, it seems like it’s the next step.
Collin: I think so, so fully. And when we look at it as a metaphor to a plant, we know that if a plant has the right amount of sunlight and the right amount of water and the right air, it will thrive. Or it will die if it doesn’t have that. Well, humans, we’re not that much different. If we can control all of our external variables well and create them to be the optimal things for us, then yeah, we can just transform ourselves and our wellness.
Scott: I love it. What about the smell in the office? Whenever I drive up to Tahoe and get to a certain tree line, you roll down the windows and it smells so good. Does your product make it smell different? Or am I really just smelling the bacteria? How does that work?
Collin: So, you are smelling volatile compounds that plants emit. So, trees emit beneficial things, almost like aromatherapy in a sense. And we pick up on that. There are desirable compounds in forests and things that we pick up through forest bathing. The office smell, there’s a lot of stuff in that. There’s the off gassing of a lot of people’s technology products, and clothes and body odor, let’s just say it. There’s a lot of stuff going on. One of the things that our product does is it filters air through activated carbon, the same stuff that’s in a Brita water filter. So, when stuff gets filtered through activated carbon, it gets sucked in. There’re all these billions of tiny pores. So, we don’t promote that we can handle all types of smells, because that’s a big claim, but we can absolutely help remedy a lot of the common stuffiness that happens. The other thing that natural environments often include is the appropriate amount of humidity. Humans like a higher humidity level. That’s why Hawaii feels better than a really cold, dry place. And so, when our system pulls air actively with a fan system through that filter media and then through the root system of the plants, it’s also humidifying that air with this wet soil substrate. And then when the fan projects that air back into the space, we’re emitting this humidified, naturally earthen vibe that also just contributes to a way nicer feel.
Scott: I love it. I love it. It’s so amazing. So, can we talk about the electronic component of this? So, it sounds like you’ve got a WIFI receiver, you’ve got an electronic fan. Walk us through the basics.
Collin: Yeah. Well, all this research was pioneered in the late 70s by NASA. NASA researchers were trying to figure out how to grow clean air in space, so they looked at root microbiomes. But it turns out that if you get rid of all the dirt, which you need to, and then pull air through the roots of a plant, you generally kill it. That’s not how a plant evolved. So, you actually need a lot of sensors to understand how dry the plant’s getting and then to trigger a water pump. And then once it’s watered, to trigger the fans, but not to overrun the fans, because then you’ll dry it out too fast. So, you need basically an adaptive system in order to manage plants this way. So about five years ago, when we were prototyping these systems out, we basically built a full-fledged computer to run this. And then at that point we were like, well, if we’re applying these everywhere, we probably want to push OTAs. And so, we built out the stack for IOT, and now we can push new firmware to the systems. And at that point we were like, well, we already have these computers and a bunch of sensors. Why don’t we add more sensors? So now every system is also measuring real time carbon dioxide levels in the room, your volatile organic compound levels, particulate matter. And we have a dashboard now, so clients can actually monitor the indoor environment. We call it the wellness platform because if you get five or 10 Taigas in your space and in different rooms, you now have analytics around how your space is performing, what spaces you may need to invest more resources in to make healthy. And so, the computer aspects of the product are really compelling in that way. The other way that they’re essential is the system needs to know if it’s put into a dark basement with really low humidity or a super bright… We’ve got 40 some systems in Salesforce Tower, which are just pummeled with natural light. So, they have to water more, they have to change their care. So, the systems all think for themselves and are fully adaptive, which for us is the only way to get nature to actually scale the way that we think nature needs to scale to keep up with urbanization.
Scott: Are you seeing people do this… We’ve been talking mostly about the office context, but are people doing this in their house too? It seems like it would a house so much nicer.
Collin: Indeed. We get a lot of outreach on our website from homeowners that are looking for solutions. We do take some right now. The challenge right now is we’ve been very focused on commercial real estate. It’s just been a large market opportunity. The Bay Area, obviously, has a lot of great companies that invest a lot in their employee experience. So as a small startup, it’s been really great to focus in that vertical. We are focusing on a cost down right now to make our product, which is moderately expensive. It’s like the Tesla model. Our hardware is made in the Bay Area. What we’re doing is investing in a lower cost version of manufacturing so that we can really enter the residential market with a more approachable product line that will be available in a direct to consumer website. Just really easy, pick the size you want, the plants you want, and the finish option, and we’ll deliver it to you.
Scott: Hope you have a waiting list.
Collin: Gladly. Yeah, absolutely, man. Got to get one back there behind you in your office.
Scott: I know. Well, I’ve got the photo I really love, but yes, I could have one over the monitors. People know accountants and software developers often have two monitors, and so having something right above that would be really amazing. (Speaking of accounting, check out our bookkeeping for startups page!) The final thing I wanted to talk about was just the physical beauty. You mentioned that some interior designers were reaching out to you. What’s been the feedback on the physical beauty in the space?
Collin: We’ve found, through customer surveys, that occupancy of spaces that have our systems increases. Employees are naturally drawn to environments that are calming, that reduce stress. We don’t have the details on how much better those employees get while they’re in our spaces, but we know that occupancy is increasing. We know that through data, that those local environments are getting a lot healthier, and clients can see that, which is really exciting. In terms of natural beauty, we still largely leverage outside third parties like Stanford, who recently published a really awesome piece of research showing that disconnection from nature, just looking at it, visually seeing lots of plants and greenery, increases the risk of anxiety and mood disorders by about 20% to 40%. And again, this hearkens back to the fact that we are animals that evolved over millennia in natural settings. And urbanization has only occurred in the past 150 years, and we are just genetically not equipped to mentally handle what’s being thrown at us. The social isolation, just the environmental spaces that we’re being confronted with. So, there’s a lot of really fascinating data around how, for instance, the human eye can perceive more shades of green than any other color, and so it’s a stimulant for us. It’s this wonderful dichotomy of a stimulant that also relaxes us. It keeps us wastefully rested, some researchers call it. And if we can incorporate that into a super stressful world, I think we’re providing a whole lot of value.
Scott: Oh yeah. Plus, all of the physical benefits of better air, more oxygen, positive bacteria. You really have come up with something really cool. I’m so glad you could come on because we’re all inundated with tough things around COVID-19, so I wanted to have another good news podcast here. And you put a huge smile on my face and also given me a lot of hope, and I’m looking forward to having one of your systems in my home office eventually.
Collin: Me too, man. I really look forward to that in near future time. We’re really trying to bring these products out in a more available way because awareness is just, it’s here. And we’ve waited a little bit for the awareness to arrive that our indoor spaces matter. So, thanks for giving us some spotlight to share our mission and our story. Really appreciate that, Scott, and we’d love for anybody listening to be able to reach out to us and connect just with some thoughts or questions.
Scott: Yeah. Collin, how can people buy this? What do we do?
Collin: Yeah. So right now, we largely work with channel partners, but if you visit us online, www.biome.us, B-I-O-M-E dot U-S, you can send us a little message. We’ll get back to you. We’re really personal. We’re based in the Bay Area. We are working on some larger website changes that will make it easier to buy online direct. But yeah, reach out at Biome.us, or you can email me. Collin with two L’s, C-O-L-L-I-N, @biome.us. We’d love to hear from anyone in the region with questions and maybe some opportunities too.
Scott: Awesome. Collin, thanks so much for coming by. Check out Biome. It’s, again, this is the kind of thing that makes you feel good and gives you a lot of positive vibes about where things are going in the world.
Collin: Thanks, Scott. Really grateful for the time here.
Scott: Awesome. All right, buddy.
Singer: (singing) It’s Kruze Consulting’s Founders and Friends with your host, Scotty Orn.

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