As workplaces slowly reopen, tech companies smell a new multibillion-dollar opportunity: Helping businesses trace coronavirus

Key Points
  • Technology companies ranging from major professional services firms to scrappy startups are building apps and wearables for businesses to track and stop the spread of coronavirus among employees in the workplace.
  • It could be a multi-billion dollar market, according to one estimate.
  • It's probably legal for private employers to require employees to download one of these apps.
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Technology companies ranging from major professional services firms to scrappy startups are building apps and wearables for businesses to track and stop the spread of coronavirus among employees in the workplace.

The technology is called digital contact tracing, and although few big organizations have publicly committed to using the tools so far, technology companies see the new category as a major opportunity as offices reopen, and are often repurposing existing technology to focus on Covid-19 tracking.

Digital contact tracing for the enterprise is a new field, said Laura Becker, an analyst covering employee experience and benefits for IDC. But digital contact tracing for companies could be worth billions, she estimates, as companies re-open offices and look for ways to assure employees it's safe. 

"Looking at larger organizations that would probably be more apt to institute something like this, like organizations that employ over 1000 people, and if I take a percentage of those that don't opt in, even with all of those assumptions, I'm still looking at like a $4.3 billion potential market for this," Becker said.

Apple and Google, among nonprofit groups, are creating software for contact tracing, too, but their system is targeted at the public and will be used by public health officials in Europe to make free contact tracing apps that work on a national scale. Apple and Google's software isn't going to be bought and sold, making enterprise tracing apps the likely market where people will make money off of this technology.

It might also work better in workplaces, because the more people that use these apps, the more effective they are, and employers can theoretically mandate them, gaining full coverage at offices and campuses. 

PwC, which is building a contact tracing app, says that nearly a quarter of CFOs they surveyed said they plan to evaluate the technology as part of their office reopening strategy.

Some questions still remain before big companies start cutting checks for enterprise Covid-19 technology, including whether it makes employees feel safer, if it's legal and appropriate to deploy to employees, and if the technology works at large scale in the field.

"Electronic contact tracing and testing are useful. They're necessary, but insufficient conditions for controlling this in the workplace," said Mark Barnes, health partner at Ropes and Gray, a law firm. "I've had a problem with trying to explain to employers that it's more complicated than just adopting a mandatory app and mandatory testing." 

Enterprise contact tracing technology can decipher where an employee has been and who they have been in contact with, enabling companies to tell them to go home and isolate if they are at high risk for coming down with Covid-19, potentially heading off a larger outbreak. 

Barnes wrote earlier this month that it's likely legal for private employers in the United States to mandate that employees use a contact-tracing app as a condition of employment. He said in an interview that each individual product is different, and issues including whether they track people off the clock, and whether employees self-report they are positive for the virus, are critical. 

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Repurposing existing tech

Many of the companies which have announced new Covid-19 tracking tools have repurposed existing technology and systems to focus on tracing coronavirus. 

One example is Kinexon, a private German technology company, which originally developed ultra-wideband sensors to collect data for athletes -- for instance, tracking the flight of a soccer ball. Now it is selling a product that it says can ensure social distancing and trace infections by using the same sensors, said Mehdi Bentanfous, U.S. managing director at Kinexon.

"When you come to your shift or you come to work, you put the sensor dedicated to you in your bracelet in a clip or in your pocket," Bentanfous said. "The first goal is as soon as two sensors get too close to each other you will see the light on on the sensor, turning to red and basically blinking so that you know, 'I'm actually too close to someone else.'" 

Kinexon's sensors can be used to ensure social distancing on factory floors.

Kinexon sells the sensors for between $140 and $200 along with a $1 to $2 software-as-a-service fee per sensor. It envisions the "SafeZone" product being used on factory floors and it's being tested with a current clients, including a major automotive manufacturer in Germany and a food manufacturer in the United States, Bentanfous said.

Chicago startup Proxfinity is selling a Covid-tracking product called the Rescue smart badge that was originally designed to help people network at large events. "We can provide highly specific information about person to person interaction, without depending on apps, phone, GPS or really requiring any personal details,"  Proxfinity CEO Lisa Carrel said.

ESRI, a private technology company based in Redlands, California, has added Covid-specific features to its indoor maps products that use Wi-Fi and Bluetooth signals received by smartphones to triangulate where someone is and create a real-time map. Its main target customers are large institutions like hospitals and airports, but now it's selling that same software to companies that want to reopen their offices.

"The first reaction from some of my dev leads was to say, what should we do with this product right now, nobody's in the workplace," Brian Cross, director of professional services at ESRI said. "Then about two days later, it was like, wait a second, everyone's going to come back to the office. And we think this tool is perfectly suited for helping people manage adjustments to space and employee behavior."

Cross said that ESRI's maps could be used to trace who someone who tested positive may have infected and said that ESRI would want its clients to opt-in both on the employer level and the employee level for that kind of feature. It could also be used for employees to swap desks, called "hot desking," or stagger waves of employees returning to the office. 

Privacy comes up a lot in conversations with these companies, which all say that they secure the sensitive data like who's at risk for contracting the virus and only make it available to authorized people, like an HR official. Barnes, the lawyer, said that the best design from a privacy point of view for enterprise apps is similar to the Apple-Google system for public health officials

"The optimal design from a privacy point of view of these apps would be cell phones and smartphones that talk to each other with Bluetooth technology, and the employer has no access to the server that stores that information," Barnes said. 

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