When Colleen Costello was just 14 years old, a close family member was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes. "That sparked my interest in health care and in how the human body works," says the co-founder of Vital Vio. Her company makes a new kind of LED white light that safely disinfects indoor environments (e.g., hospitals, food and pharmaceutical processing facilities, gyms, public transportation) that may contain an alarmingly high bacteria count.
The road to creating Vital Vio was a somewhat winding one. As a high school student in Yorktown, New York, Costello joined a three-year intensive research program with Weill Cornell Medical Center and Mount Sinai Medical Center, where she studied endocrinology and tested different types of insulin. But the clinical environment wasn't for Costello. An inveterate tinkerer, she became fascinated with the idea of inventing medical devices. So when it came time for college, her mom researched schools that had good reputations for encouraging women in science and engineering. The winner was Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where Costello studied biomedical engineering.
When Costello was a junior at RPI, her grandmother was admitted to the hospital after she slipped and fell. "She was supposed to stay overnight, but the next morning we were told that she had a MRSA infection. She ended up staying for over a week," says Costello, recalling that family members had to wear masks when visiting. "We weren't getting a lot of answers, and when I don't have answers, I like to find them."
As it turns out, one in 25 patients gets a health care-associated infection every day, according to the CDC. On the rise, MRSA is a particularly nasty type of infection, because its bacteria are resistant to most antibiotics. So Costello approached her friend James Peterson, a mechanical engineering student at RPI, and they began exploring ways to prevent infection by disinfecting health care facilities. (Paterson, who co-founded Vital Vio, is no longer with the company.)
Light has been used for disinfecting for more than a century. The technology was developed in London in the 1890s, says Costello. However, germicidal wavelengths of UV light can be harmful to humans, even causing skin cancer, so hospitals use UV disinfecting lights only when rooms are empty. But the commercialization of LED lights made it possible to "do all sorts of interesting things in selecting the spectrum," explains Costello. So she and Peterson developed an LED white light with disinfecting properties that was safe to use around humans 24/7.
Their first application: lighting around IV lines, since catheter line infections are one of the most common types associated with hospitals. "We spent around six months on that concept, but technical issues and FDA regulations made us decide to pivot away from a medical device," Costello says. "But in the process, we became very well-versed in the microbiology aspect, and we learned a lot about how white light is created."
The company altered its course, and now Vital Vio's new disinfecting diode can be integrated into existing lighting fixtures and turn any light into a disinfecting light that attacks molecules specific to bacteria, mold, and fungi. Unlike the disinfecting UV lights traditionally used in hospitals, Vital Vio's lights can be left on all the time, because they cause no harm to humans. "I started from nothing," says Costello. "So we had a lot of gauges to go through to develop credibility and to get customers to buy in." But the product ultimately spoke for itself.
"I had the product installed in a hospital emergency room, and it showed a statistically significant reduction in microbial contamination," says Jared Sutton of Jelms Consulting, a firm that specializes in microbial decontamination solutions. He met Costello at an industry conference and was impressed by Vital Vio's light. "We were interested in it for any type of application where you need to have a surface disinfected routinely but can't close it down--like in emergency rooms or surgical rooms," he says.
Costello expects the Affordable Care Act to give her company a shot in the arm. The law specifies that health care facilities whose rates of hospital-acquired infections fall into the top 25 percent will have their Medicare reimbursement payments reduced. "Hospitals are our biggest addressable market," she says. Currently, Vital Vio's lights are used in a variety of compound pharmacies, including those at Mount Sinai Medical Center and Cleveland VA Medical Center, and will soon be installed at UCLA Medical Center, Duke University's athletics pavilion, and veterinary hospitals and ambulances. And in the next couple of months, says Costello, "we'll be rolling out announcements about partnerships with lighting companies."