Health Tech: Erik Malmstrom On How SafeTraces’ Technology Can Make An Important Impact On Our Overall Wellness
An Interview With Dave Philistin
…Simply put, SafeTraces’ technology is as consequential for building health as CT, MRI, and PET have been for human health. Conceptually, SafeTraces’ technology is analogous to PET for buildings, leveraging patented and safe DNA-tagged aerosol tracers to detect, measure, and visualize abnormalities in airflow, ventilation, and filtration in real world indoor spaces. SafeTraces’ technology will become central to the healthy building continuum in the same way that medical imaging technology is central to the healthcare continuum, dramatically sharpening diagnostic accuracy in order to protect occupants from airborne disease, better manage financial resources, and reduce carbon impacts of HVAC systems.
In recent years, Big Tech has gotten a bad rep. But of course many tech companies are doing important work making monumental positive changes to society, health, and the environment. To highlight these, we started a new interview series about “Technology Making An Important Positive Social Impact”. We are interviewing leaders of tech companies who are creating or have created a tech product that is helping to make a positive change in people’s lives or the environment. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Erik Malmstrom.
Erik Malmstrom is CEO of SafeTraces, a Bay Area-based safety technology leader focused on indoor air quality and ventilation safety. Erik is driven to create a better, safer, more sustainable world. Previously, he held senior roles at the Office of the US Trade Representative, Farmers Business Network, and Cargill. He is also a co-founder of CrossBoundary, a leading frontier market investment advisor, as well as a combat veteran and graduate of U.S. Army Ranger and Airborne Schools. Erik received his undergraduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania and a joint M.B.A. — M.P.P. from Harvard Business and Kennedy Schools.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory and how you grew up?
Honestly, I had a fairly uneventful childhood. I grew up in the 1980s and 1990s in West Hartford, Connecticut, an upper middle class suburb. My parents worked in the insurance industry, and I have a brother who is nine years younger than me. I was very fortunate to attend great public schools and have an amazing group of friends, many of whom I continue to be tight with today., I was extremely close with my paternal grandparents, who were working class, second generation immigrants, salt-of-the-earth people. They came of age during the Great Depression and World War II — their working class sensibility, their toughness, resilience, and grit, and their sense of duty to their family, community, and country had a major influence on me.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
My first career experience was leading a 40-man infantry platoon in a yearlong trainup and 16 month combat deployment to one of the most violent regions of eastern Afghanistan in 2005–2007. It was amazing, but incredibly difficult. We operated in a remote mountainous region close to the Pakistan border that was a sanctuary for Taliban and Al-Qaeda. As a 26 year old junior officer, I was responsible for counterinsurgency operations with Afghan security forces — patrolling, ambushes, and raids; negotiating with local elders; and managing development projects. While we had some notable achievements, unfortunately our failures are what stick with me. Three soldiers in my platoon were killed in a mountainside ambush five months into our deployment. Two months later, our company commander and two other soldiers were killed in an IED ambush. I am extremely proud of my service and grateful for the honor to have served. But I will never fully make peace with our losses.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
General Chris Cavoli, who was my battalion commander during my combat deployment and currently the commanding general for U.S. Europe and Africa Command. While I’ve been lucky to work with incredible individuals throughout my career, I haven’t worked with anyone with the same combination of leadership ability, strategic vision, intellect, force of personality, commitment to excellence, risk appetite, and integrity as General Cavoli. His boldness and the way he empowered those he trusted are two traits that I’ve tried to live up to. He took huge risks — I mean absolutely huge risks — when he had conviction that it was the best and right thing to do, even when there was a high likelihood of failure. It is accurate to say that he changed the course of US military strategy in Afghanistan for a period. We would have very candid discussions about the merits, strengths, and weaknesses of our approach. It meant a lot to me that he actually cared what I thought even as a green lieutenant. He made a very concerted effort to mentor me at a formative stage of my career and has continued to support me in my civilian career. The lessons I learned from him are just as important in entrepreneurship as they were in the military.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I love the quote, “If you’re going through hell, keep going” by Winston Churchill. I am a huge admirer of Churchill; his life, career, and writings are truly epic. His quote is fundamentally about the importance of perseverance, resilience, and grit. Despite his monumental successes and achievements, he experienced equally monumental failures and disappointments. The two go hand-in-hand; any highly successful person has a lot of failure to match. Moreover, the road to success is hard and often lonely. I’ve had many failures and disappointments of my own — academic, athletic, professional. To put it bluntly, they suck and they never feel any better or get any easier. However, I’ve always prided myself on being able to take a punch or body blow, get off the mat, and come back stronger, smarter, and better.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Mission-focus, resilience, and integrity.
Mission has been everything to me — it is an existential litmus test on how and where I spend my limited time on earth. It may sound dramatic, but it’s true. If I am not inspired by the mission, I literally don’t care and am incapable of doing a good job. Luckily, I’ve always had a clear sense of which missions I am passionate about, which have centered around the theme of security, whether it be national security, economic security, food security, environmental security, and biosecurity. While my background looks non-linear at first glance, mission-focus around security is the throughline.
Resilience has been critical for sustaining and eventually strengthening me during the tough times that you inevitably confront in entrepreneurship, public service, and leadership, especially when you’re setting ambitious goals where there’s a real and high risk of failure. As mentioned, I’ve had too many failures to count. In many respects, I consider my Army combat experience a failure in not bringing home all of my men and seeing what happened to the region of Afghanistan we served in after our departure. I’ve had many failures in entrepreneurship, big and small, and my government service resulted in multiple trade initiatives, notably TPP, flopping. In each case, I force myself to go through a soul-searching process, to stare these failures in the face, and then move on for the better.
Integrity has been central to who I am and who I will always be. I care tremendously about being honest, authentic, and straight up with people, even when I’ve paid a price in the short-term. I’ve always been rewarded in the long-term. A great and ongoing example is being an entrepreneur in the Silicon Valley startup/VC ecosystem, which can feel like a nonstop hype machine. This ecosystem often pushes people to blur the lines between fact and fiction, dreams and reality. In some cases, people have encouraged me to play into this dynamic or warned me that I will be penalized as an entrepreneur if I don’t play into it more. But I am proud that I’ve held my ground and stayed very true to who I am.
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about the tech tools that you are helping to create that can make a positive impact on our wellness. To begin, which particular problems are you aiming to solve?
Respiratory infections, which are the defining global health challenge of our times. COVID-19 has opened many people’s eyes to the magnitude of this problem. The numbers are absolutely staggering — we’re in the third year of the pandemic, which officially accounted for over 5 million deaths, over 300 million cases, and an estimated $1 trillion in monthly economic harm. The actual numbers are likely much higher. While there have been positive advances along the way, there’s no light at the end of the tunnel for the pandemic ending any time soon sadly.
It’s important to note that respiratory infections have been with us in varying forms prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and will be with us in the future, not just with SARS-CoV-2 becoming endemic but also with pandemics forecasted to occur with increased frequency and severity in the future. Many people don’t realize the magnitude of the health and financial costs of respiratory infections prior to COVID-19. In the US, tens of thousands of Americans die and hundreds of thousands of Americans are hospitalized from the flu every year. And the annual direct and indirect costs of non-coronavirus respiratory infections is estimated to be about $50 billion annually in the US.
Much of the public discourse focuses on vaccination, testing, and masking, all of which are very important. But indoor air quality, ventilation, and filtration are also incredibly important and far more misunderstood, neglected, and mismanaged. This is unfortunate, not only because it is valuable for infection control. It is also critical for cognition, performance, and productivity of people in everyday spaces like offices, schools, plants, etc.
How do you think your technology can address this?
According to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), inadequate ventilation is responsible for 52% of indoor air quality risk, including exposure to airborne pathogens like SARS-CoV-2, influenza, and the common cold, representing the single largest source of IAQ risk.
Historically, safety, engineering, and facilities professionals have lacked a solution for verifying real world ventilation performance for pathogen protection, which has led to preventable infections, wasted spending and misdirected efforts, and unnecessary HVAC-related carbon emissions from real estate and facilities.
Developed with National Institutes of Health support, veriDART by SafeTraces is the first diagnostic solution for testing and verifying real world ventilation performance for health and safety, leveraging patented DNA-tagged aerosol tracers that safely simulate respiratory emission and exposure to airborne pathogens.
What is the return on investment for our customers, including Fortune 100 companies, leading commercial real estate owners and operators like the Irvine Company, Brookfield Properties, and JLL, and large public entities like the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, Dallas Fort Worth International Airport, and the State of California? First, the health and safety ROI is verifying ventilation and filtration systems to a health and safety-based performance standard in order to reduce infections and communicate facility safety to employees, tenants, and building occupants. Second, the financial ROI is spending capital and operating budgets more effectively and cost-effectively. Third, the sustainability ROI is reducing the carbon footprint of the real estate sector, which is responsible for 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions and 40% of global energy consumption.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
At one level, it’s simple — COVID-19. Seeing the global pain and disruption caused by the pandemic, it was impossible not to get involved, especially when we had a technology that is so essential to the fight.
But there’s more to the story. Our technology has deep and longstanding roots in biosecurity. The underlying research was conducted at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in response to anthrax spores and other airborne biological and chemical threats. The government had an imperative to develop a methodology that could be deployed in field environments in order to safely simulate this sort of bioterror attack and conduct risk assessments in high profile potential targets and verify the performance of bio-defenses. So our technology is very well-suited to the risk at hand with COVID-19. It’s just a pandemic version of the risk instead of a bioterror version of the risk.
At a personal level, I and our team just wanted to help the cause, both with respect to COVID-19 and also the global health challenge of respiratory infections generally. Early in the pandemic when it was increasingly clear that coronavirus was spreading through the air, Phil Arnold, our VP of Engineering, had a great idea for a field assessment tool that eventually became our veriDART solution. At that time, we were primarily focused on food traceability and safety. But we saw a huge opportunity, both from a mission standpoint and commercially, which was borne out as we took an initial version of our product to market, which was very well received by our early customers.
Most motivating to me is the work that we’ve done with prisons, schools, mass transit authorities, nursing homes, and other customers who have huge needs and vulnerabilities, but who aren’t necessarily customer categories that venture-backed tech companies like ours always flock to. Of course, I am very proud of our blue chip, name brand customers. But I’ve always wanted our reach to extend far beyond that.
How do you think this might change the world?
The built environment stands at a 1967-like inflection point, when diagnostic imaging technology revolutionized medicine. Sir Godfrey Hounsfield’s 1967 invention of the first computed tomography (CT) scanner. CT is considered one of the most important medical innovations in human history, advancing us from a largely superficial to an incredibly sophisticated understanding of the inner workings of the human body. CT images display soft tissue contrasted with anatomic detail, exponentially enhancing diagnostic accuracy for detecting, measuring, and visualizing abnormalities in the body’s metabolic processes and physiological activities, including cancer, heart disease, and neurological disorders. CT kicked off a revolution in medical imaging, with major improvements in the efficacy, precision, and speed of CT itself in subsequent decades as well as the invention of complementary diagnostic technologies such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron emission tomography (PET). Today, medical imaging is fundamental to the entire health-care continuum, representing a true step change advancement for the field.
Simply put, SafeTraces’ technology is as consequential for building health as CT, MRI, and PET have been for human health. Conceptually, SafeTraces’ technology is analogous to PET for buildings, leveraging patented and safe DNA-tagged aerosol tracers to detect, measure, and visualize abnormalities in airflow, ventilation, and filtration in real world indoor spaces. SafeTraces’ technology will become central to the healthy building continuum in the same way that medical imaging technology is central to the healthcare continuum, dramatically sharpening diagnostic accuracy in order to protect occupants from airborne disease, better manage financial resources, and reduce carbon impacts of HVAC systems. Moreover, the impact of our technology will be amplified by pooling data from millions of assessments within and across buildings over time under different conditions and correlating with other IAQ diagnostic data in order to strengthen the diagnosis, treatment, and monitoring process through data science.
A challenge facing many diagnostic technologies focused on health and safety is some customers’ fear of the unknown — what will the technology find and is it better not to know?
If the pandemic had been shorter and less severe, it is safe to say that indoor air quality, ventilation, and filtration wouldn’t have nearly the same degree of scrutiny and attention that it has received recently. But the genie is out of the bottle and the public increasingly understands the importance of these health and safety measures. The longer the pandemic persists, the greater public awareness becomes and the greater public pressure builds on building owners and operators to be transparent and provide credible assurances.
We’re at a point where the risk of the unknown is greater than the risk of the unknown across the built environment. And there’s a momentum behind what’s happening now that can’t be reversed and that will ultimately lead to positive changes. But this change can be scary and threatening to some.
On our side, the data is what it is and it doesn’t lie. Poorly ventilated buildings will show results to this effect; well ventilated buildings will do the same. However, ventilation is not a world of binaries and absolutes. Rather it is more like shades of gray. Moreover, for people expecting the worst, our results often are better than they had expected; for those supremely confident, our results can be surprising and humbling.
The good news is that fixes can often be simple, quick, and cost-effective. But it starts with knowing the baseline level of real world performance, which requires a field verification technology like ours.
Here is the main question for our discussion. Based on your experience and success, can you please share “Five things you need to know to successfully create technology that can make a positive social impact”? (Please share a story or an example, for each.)
I’ll take a general reading of this question and not go in a super techy direction.
First, commit yourself to a mission bigger than yourself that you’re passionate about and that is focused on doing good and helping others. Once you are clear on this mission, work backwards on how technology can solve this problem. But allow flexibility. SafeTraces is a great example of this. We were laser focused on food traceability and safety until the pandemic happened. We continue to be extremely passionate about food traceability and safety, but another more timely opportunity surfaced, which offered the potential to help people on an even bigger scale.
Second, swing for the fences. Take on big hairy problems, ones considered intractable. These are the types of challenges that really need your time and efforts and where you can make a huge impact, even if it won’t be immediate. Don’t be afraid to set bold audacious goals that make you scared. Every company that I’ve worked at has had the ambition to change the world in its own way. SafeTraces is no different. Our goal at SafeTraces is to be the gold standard for verifying ventilation performance for health and safety and to touch every single building to ensure a healthy, safe space for all.. Full stop. It is a bold, audacious, and perhaps impossible goal. But our purpose and ambition is to change the world. You can’t do that if you don’t try.
Third, when you inevitably whiff, come back smarter, stronger, and better. As mentioned, failure and disappointment go hand-in-hand with success and achievement. Each failure and disappointment is an opportunity for learning, growth, and improvement. That’s something that you tell yourself in the moment as solace, but it really is true. At times when a product idea hasn’t worked out or revenue targets fall short, I’ve needed to figure out what went wrong and then bake these learnings in your next time up to the plate. Back to resilience, perseverance, and grit.
Fourth, surround yourself with the best people you possibly can. Best is defined as not only the smartest, most talented, and most skilled, but those who are passionate and committed to your mission-focus, who are team players, who can make others around them better, who can attract other great people, and who have the DNA to thrive in a chaotic, high-risk startup environment. In recruiting, interviewing, and hiring, I am very focused on seeking out these qualities in candidates. The successful technology startups that I’ve worked in and advised have had both individuals and culture embodying these qualities that reinforce each other. In the early innings, the team is everything. It’s everything in the later innings as well, but early on every person really really matters and there’s no room for deadweight and mismatches with respect to culture.
Fifth, scale, scale, scale. To truly have a positive social impact, you need to impact lots and lots of people. Which means having a technology platform that has the capability to scale at huge levels. This requires foresight in product and platform development, investment, and a foundational infrastructure to support scale. It also requires an accompanying business model to support scale. It’s one thing to say that, but it’s another to build a technology platform to actually back that up. But it is something that is baked into everything we do.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
Turning this question around — why wouldn’t a young person consider making a positive impact on our environment or society? However, the reality is that it can be very easy to talk the talk but not walk the walk, especially when very practical and reasonable considerations, particularly relating to money, start coming into the equation. It is easy when you don’t need to make tradeoffs, i.e. when you can make a positive impact and also have a well paying or even lucrative career. Most jobs entail some trade off, it’s just a matter of how significant.
However, startups are an area where you may be able to have it both ways, or at least more so than other jobs. You’re just assuming a daunting risk-reward probability, both in terms of achieving impact and having it be financially lucrative. There’s also a timeline element where you will likely be sacrificing short-term cash compensation for long-term equity payoff if you’re successful. Not everyone is in a position to make this sacrifice or doesn’t necessarily want to.
Responding to the question in a different way, when you’re really and truly mission-focused, you don’t even view making a positive impact as a choice. It is a duty, a commitment, and an obligation. I’ve never viewed it as a choice of whether I will focus on making a positive impact. It’s just a question of how and where I can make the biggest impact.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
Sorry, I can’t stick to just one.
In business, Elon Musk. He’s a true visionary, innovator, and doer. What he’s built at Paypal, Tesla, and Spacex is completely mind-blowing. Three completely different businesses, all way way ahead of their time, and all tightly linked to mega- trends and challenges in the world. There’s so much to learn from someone like that.
In politics, Jerry Brown. A singular leader and public servant with a simultaneously conventional and completely unconventional background. He’s seen it all and experienced the highs, lows, and in betweens. Again, so much to learn from someone like that.
In the creative realm, Paul McCartney (Jimmy Page and Pete Townshend as very close backups). Half of the greatest songwriting duo ever. I would just want to pick his brain on his creative process for songwriting, as well as hearing old Beatles war stories.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
The short answer is our company website (www.safetraces.com) and our company and my personal LinkedIn accounts, which are central nodes for our work, writings, events, etc.