At Enrico Iori’s Italian factory and U.S. offices, about 150 employees don bracelets, belt clips and lanyards that light up, vibrate and make irritating sounds whenever they get within six feet of each other.
“We had no outbreak, we had no internally generated cases,” said Iori, the founder and chief executive officer of IK Multimedia, a maker of products for the music industry that segued into pandemic-related wearables. “And the good news is that the people stay apart. The device buzzes and vibrates. It keeps the people apart because it’s annoying.”
Iori’s company is one of about 60, including giants like Samsung Electronics Co., that offer wearables in the fight against Covid-19. While vaccines are on the horizon, it could take months before work-age employees become eligible to receive them. Meanwhile, cases are skyrocketing, spurring demand for products like IK’s Safe Spacer. Factories, warehouses and even Hollywood producers are using them to stay open and keep workers safe.
“About 50% of the workforce is still at work,” said Jeff Becker, an analyst at Forrester Research. “That’s a lot of people who don’t have the luxury of waiting this thing out at home. And those employers want a solution to protect their workforce.”
For now, Forrester is treating this as a pop-up industry, one that could vanish when Covid-19 is in the rearview mirror and the need for social distancing and contact tracing ends. Still, wearables startups say that orders have ramped up in the last six weeks as the pandemic worsens. So far, Covid-19 has sickened almost 68 million people worldwide, while killing more than 1.5 million, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.
The market for cheap, purpose-built gadgets could reach $105 million by mid-2021, according to WinterGreen Research. Most products tend to cost about $100 upfront, but some come with service contracts priced at around $60 to $100 a year. The companies are betting the devices find other workplace applications in safety and productivity once the pandemic is defeated.
The Contact wristband from startup Proxxi Technology Corp. alerts all wearers in a workplace when they may be at risk. It’s used on the set of “The Conners,” a spinoff of the sitcom “Roseanne” that airs on ABC, according to CEO Campbell Macdonald.
“The reality is we probably have another six months of real challenges in the workplace,” Macdonald said. “The cost of our product is relatively low relative to shutdown.”
One feature of standalone gadgets is that they can go for days without charging. Startup Nodle’s M1 clip-on, for example, can run for a week. The company has already shipped its first 1,000 units, and has gotten inquiries from more than 1,400 companies, ranging from startups to banks, which are interested in ordering a total of about 4 million units, said CEO Micha Benoliel.
While mobile apps can help with contact tracing, employees at many manufacturing facilities, for example, aren’t allowed to use their phones, Benoliel said.
“It’s difficult for people to know what six feet really is and to maintain it,” Benoliel said. “Having the device reminds you. And it also recalls your interactions.”
©2020 Bloomberg L.P.