Smart building sensors and big data could help office workers return safely


The message about whether workers should return to the office has been confusing during the pandemic, with shifting government advice forcing many companies to send newly returned employees home. In September, a COVID-19 outbreak caused JPMorgan to send workers home less than a week after enticing them back to the office. But as companies bounce staff between HQ and home based on changing safety protocols, the pandemic has opened the door to a number of startups that mesh simple sensors with data and analytics to make company working environments more appealing.

London-based OpenSensors this week announced it has raised $4 million to help companies clear a path back to the office by measuring air quality and space occupancy. Founded in 2014, OpenSensors offers commercial facilities the smarts to optimize desk space and meeting rooms or figure out the footfall in a given area. The hardware may use any number of technologies to engage with the environment, including passive infrared sensors (PIR) that can be placed on individual desks to monitor motion and heat and establish whether someone is at their desk and for how long. Other types of sensors can use object recognition to count the number of people in a particular location.

OpenSensors’ technology is all the more pertinent during the pandemic, not just to enable social distancing, but to monitor air quality, as indoor air quality, including humidity, is thought to be a factor in the virus’ spread.

Data crunching

OpenSensors doesn’t make the hardware itself, though it works with businesses to find the right kind of sensors and helps with installation. Instead, OpenSensors focuses on the data and software side of the equation: making the hardware dance. It gathers and crunches all the sensor data, revealing patterns and insights around which times and days tend to be busiest.

Above: OpenSensors: Workplace space utilization

The OpenSensors dashboard can also show “heat maps” of various rooms and floors, with users able to filter by CO2, temperature, humidity, and even noise.

Above: OpenSensors: Measuring air quality

Though OpenSensors hasn’t revealed any names, it claims to have more than 30 customers with “complex real estate operations” across North America and Europe, spanning finance, insurance, and technology.

Several other startups stand to benefit from the challenges big businesses face in trying to bring people back to the office, and investors have taken note. Earlier this month, Infogrid secured $15.5 million for similar sensor/software technologies that can be retrofitted to make buildings smarter. Meanwhile, Density has raised $51 million for AI-powered occupancy-tracking sensors, and VergeSense locked down $9 million.

Post COVID-19, many businesses will likely want to take a look at their operational costs and see if they’re wasting money on under-utilized spaces. That’s where companies like OpenSensors come in — why pay for premises that were only at 65% capacity before the pandemic when you can downsize and save?

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