Episode 2

Welcome to the Great Indoors

As humans, we use more air than just about anything else in our daily lives. Collin Cavote, Biome founder, talks with us about how plants in the workplace are beautiful and calming to our senses, and how they introduce beneficial bacteria into the places we work and live to combat viruses, VOCs, and decline in our cognitive function.

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Well, now you know why you get tired in a conference room. It's not because it's drab. It's not because you're cut away from the rest of the world. It's a physiological change that's happening in your body. Collin Cavote, Biome Founder and CEO


CCB (One Workplace): [00:00:00] Good morning. This is the ONEder podcast and I am your host, CCB, and I'm sitting here today with someone really, really, really fascinating that I know we're all going to learn an incredible amount from. You know, we've been talking about design for the senses, multi-sensory design and the human experience within the workplace. And we discovered this multi-sensory intervention from our guest.And I've been fascinated with the connections to our theme. So we're here with Colin Cavote... I know how to say your name now!

Collin Cavote (Biome): [00:00:33] You did a great job.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:00:34] Thank you. Ever so. So why don't you tell us a little bit about yourself first before we dive into it?

Collin Cavote (Biome): [00:00:39] Yeah, absolutely. Well, thanks for having me. It's a great opportunity to share some of my passions with you and the ONEder podcast, I guess to sum things up, I consider myself an idealistic entrepreneur. I'm currently on a mission to help other people come into contact with the benefits of nature because I had such profound experiences in the natural world and I think the urban world deserves some of that. I grew up in Allentown, Pennsylvania, sort of a small city and had most of my childhood working. One of my first jobs was roasting corn on the cob at the age of eleven and I kept that...

CCB (One Workplace): [00:01:19] Nice smell.

Collin Cavote (Biome): [00:01:20] Yeah. Very nice smell. And it was this great exposure to entrepreneurship at a really young age. And I kept that job for about a decade until I went off to college. So that kind of set me off on a business trajectory. Looking at, you know, where does food come from and how do we service customers? And it was really nice foundational step.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:01:42] That's fascinating. I did not know that about you. What about the movement into more scientific pursuits? What took you there?

Collin Cavote (Biome): [00:01:57] Like I mentioned, I spent a bit of time outdoors. I originally dropped out of business school and found my way onto organic farms and foraging wild foods. And ultimately, in that process, realized that the natural world provides everything that I've ever used and everything that our species has ever used. So when I went back to school eventually, I wanted to study natural systems and see how we could help natural systems help us. And from that lens, I started taking biology and chemistry courses to better understand the inner workings of of the natural world. And that's sort of what started the scientific approach to understanding natural systems that acted as a springboard. That degree was in biomimicry, which was a degree I actually got a university to credit and accept as a bachelor's of science, which was kind of fun. And in that I was looking at how the natural world manages air pollution. I got really interested in air pollution through the lens of climate change. And during these studies, looking at how, in this case, plants clean air, I got on this tangent because it turns out that indoor air is actually a really fascinating—I'd say poorly understood—part of our everyday life.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:03:19] So that's where I'm going to stop you and say, OK, our earlier conversations had my brain just kind of exploding with going off in different directions about the connection between air in humans, air and the planet, air and life. And you have done so much research into that. And we're going to pull it back, to: How is that connected to.. How did you get to the workplace through that pursuit?

Collin Cavote (Biome): [00:03:51] Yeah, I think air is foundational to the human experience. First and foremost, I think that's one of the main ways that it works for this podcast thinking about the sensory experience. Foundationally, air is fascinating because as a human we use more air than we use just about anything else in our day to day lives. You know, we drink maybe a gallon of water a day, but we're breathing about 4000 gallons air a day of the equivalent. So imagine a seven foot square room; that's the amount of air. And so when we think about the quality of the inputs that we breathe and eat and drink, that's a huge volume of something that we generally don't have a whole lot of information on. So I think that's why air is really important. And really what's happening when we take a breath in, what so many folk in in meditative practices have said is, you know, breathe in and let the air work through its body and it will generally relax you and help you become more present. But when you take that breath, what's happening is the air is going into your lungs and directly into your bloodstream and circulating around your body. And when that air is good quality, it's fantastic. It's one of the most supercharging things we can do. But when there's things in that air that we may not want, then it becomes something that we need to look at a little more closely.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:05:16] When you were talking about that and where air is going throughout the body, I know that air oxygen obviously has an impact on cognitive function and actually I'm even more conscious about it given the fact that I just had a father who had dementia issues and he also had poor breathing and that added to it because of the lack of oxygen to his already challenged gray matter. So I just think that's getting into that area of what we're talking about relative to people within the workplace.

Collin Cavote (Biome): [00:05:54] You hit it spot on. There are immediate short-term impacts of air quality and cognitive function is one of those. So we know from both Yale and Harvard and numerous other universities that high levels of carbon dioxide, which happen just from a few people breathing in a room, will immediately lower cognitive function. And then, on the other hand, more long term, we know that inhaling particulate matter that comes from, let's say, diesel vehicles or whenever you brake your car, the brake pads and the tires are getting eroded slowly.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:06:31] I thought you were talking about breaking your car, which I do.

Collin Cavote (Biome): [00:06:33] Oh, my goodness. Maybe I should resay that.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:06:36] We understand.

Collin Cavote (Biome): [00:06:37] So on the opposite end of the spectrum, more long term when we're inhaling things like particulate matter from diesel vehicles or other aspects of the urban environment, those things can sort of get lodged in our bodies. And there's more and more research showing that particulate matter can help trigger gray matter buildup. And so when we're looking at at air, there's many, many elements of it, both gases, particulates. And so they all impact the body in different ways and in different timescales. At Biome we're we're really interested in first and foremost how do we make the near term the best, most healthy, most cognitively productive time that we can create?

CCB (One Workplace): [00:07:22] So you've just introduced the name of your business, Biome, which we haven't said before. So why don't you explain a little bit about what biome is and we can bring it back to the science?

Collin Cavote (Biome): [00:07:32] Sure. So back in my university days, I was looking at now indoor air pollution. And in that sphere, we do know that plants generally help clean the air by absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen in photosynthesis. But it turns out that plants have this remarkable ability to process pollution on their root systems. So we wanted to build off of the NASA data that showed that you can help plants remove more air pollution by actively filtering it through their root systems. So what we're basically doing is helping the microbiome that lives on the roots to metabolize things that we don't want in our indoor air. So what we've done is productized a hardware solution that automatically grows plants in this very optimal way. We use sensors and technology to keep plants alive while we're pumping air through their roots and allowing these natural organisms to help us live healthier. And we've put this into a product that, you know, you can deploy sort of like a TV. And the goal here is to embed these natural systems deeply into the workplace. So where they're really needed to enhance productivity--places like conference rooms, open office floor plans--so that we can have employees engaging with these wellness benefits as frequently as possible.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:08:59] So you're talking about a smart living wall that is portable within reason so that it can move anywhere within the workplace and share those magical, mysterious benefits of plants with folks during their workday.

Collin Cavote (Biome): [00:09:21] That is absolutely our goal. We're also simultaneously on every device helping clients become aware of what's actually in their air. So every biome has a sensor suite that helps monitor things like carbon dioxide and gases in the air so that our clients can start to understand how their facilities are either living up to or have room for improvement in order to help their employees have the best experience possible.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:09:48] So the first time I heard about it, I was completely blown away because it's such a smart... I'm going to go back to that smart way of combining the beauty of nature, the positive benefits of nature and a technology that can track activities within the workplace and share that information with the owners, if you will, of the space in order to help them continuously improve. Given the fact that plants in and of themselves have that benefit, you and I had that conversation about where could you start in the spectrum of delivering better air through the use of nature within the workplace.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:10:34] So when you talk about kind of that spectrum from little plant guy to...

Collin Cavote (Biome): [00:10:39] Absolutely, there are many approaches to making the workplace experiences as healthy as possible. When we're looking at air in particular, simply opening windows, if that's an option, is generally a really powerful way to filter out indoor toxins. And to be clear, what we're talking about are things that off-gas from our normal fixtures and furniture that go into our spaces and the building materials that make up those spaces. So getting outdoor air in, assuming you're not right by a bus stop, is generally a great approach if that's an option. After that, we really want to look at what are the materials that are going into the space. There are some products that are known to off-gas, fewer chemicals into the space.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:11:21] And there's a huge amount of research and emphasis being placed on, especially in California, the materials that we're using and the health and safety of the the workers and the users up the spaces.

Collin Cavote (Biome): [00:11:35] Absolutely. And with that said, those are your your kind of base elements. Then you have the operational stuff. So you have a lot of people showing up every day with their own technology products, their own bags and shoes and all of these things and they're walking in with additional particulate matter on them. So there's this other element that we have to continually manage this influx of of pollutants. One of the things that can be done is increasing the ventilation rates through your HVAC. And that's really powerful. It increases costs on your operation side slightly, but it's very, very small in respect to the productivity gains that you can experience from your employees having a healthier environment to work in.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:12:17] So, I'm just going to interject here a question: Why haven't we done it before? Is it because we didn't understand?

CCB (One Workplace): [00:12:25] The earliest parts of the green building worked so hard to make our buildings good for the earth? And so we ended up creating these sealed boxes, for lack of better words, and people were getting sick from them. We thought "Let's condition the air as minimally as possible, so that we'll reduce our energy budget, and that will be good for the world." And there are really important benefits of that. But in the scheme of things, employee wellness--and let's just say human wellness--is a way larger portion of a corporation's budget. And so impacting the employees is actually way more important than trying to save one percent on your energy bill. And also, when we invest on the human side, we see fewer sick days. We see fewer other stresses on people, on the workplace and on society. And especially in California, where we're able to source renewable energy to power our buildings, this kind of a much smaller, incremental cost to flush our buildings more thoroughly with clean air from outdoors can really be offset really easily. Now, when there's things like wildfires, that changes things up tremendously because then your outdoor air is worse than your indoor air. So we have to simultaneously be prepared for all of the new circumstances that are arising from climate change and just urbanization in general. We have to be aware of instances where our outdoor air won't always be cleaner than our indoor air. And that's where solutions like bringing plants in have a really big opportunity to impact both the employee experience, but also help manage these outlier events, which can really dramatically alter the way our buildings have to respond.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:14:18] So when you talk about dramatically impacting the employee experience, I love the picture that you created of the high-powered strategic thinkers in a enclosed conference room with what we think is state of the art HVAC. And explain what's happening to them.

Collin Cavote (Biome): [00:14:41] Yes. This is a perfect example of how we sometimes forget that air really matters. So many companies try to employ really talented people and attract them with great resources and benefits. And in order for them to do great work, they generally collaborate in a conference room and they bring all of their knowledge and experience together into that room, let's say at 10:00 a.m. And by 10:15, they've already used up so much oxygen in that room simply by breathing and contributing so much more carbon dioxide that researchers see immediate declines in cognitive function. And the reason we know this is largely from Harvard School of Public Health. They are now in their third phase of research. Now it's an international real world trial with wearables on the individuals. But the key piece of research came out of Syracuse University when they had a control building and they brought people into work, their normal shifts and then had those people work through an online game. Not like a warfare game, more of a multifaceted intellectual game. And the goal was to test memory, was test creativity and to test problem solving skills. Conceivably, the further that you got into the game and the higher your scores would be able to infer whether or not the air in the space was better or worse that day. And it turned out to be very, very accurate at predicting the quality of air in the space to the point where the Harvard researchers found that if you could double the air quality in your spaces, you could expect to see on average across the U.S. per employee benefit of sixty five hundred dollars per year. And that's because in that conference room where all of your talented people are there and gathered, we are literally reducing their ability to think strategically, to think long term, and to collaborate and communicate with each other to solve problems.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:16:46] You're so incredibly articulate about this. But if I were explaining it, I would say I just spent a day in a room and my brain was exhausted and my body was exhausted. And I was not capable of functioning at my highest level. And I didn't know the reason why.

Collin Cavote (Biome): [00:17:03] Well, now you know why you get tired in a conference room. It's not because it's drab. It's not because you're, you know, cut away from the rest of the world. It's a physiological change that's happening in your body.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:17:18] So you have shared an enormous amount of information. And I think one of the things I would like our listeners to understand a little bit more clearly is the actual Biome solution. So if you would describe it a little bit more so that--it's always difficult not to have an image that goes along with it--but seeing these beautiful living walls, with that sensory technology embedded in them, but also that the plants take care of themselves. And that part was a little bit mind-boggling to me. So I know you'll explain it more clearly.

Collin Cavote (Biome): [00:17:58] Yeah. So as a as a smart living wall, our product is a wall-mounted device. It's a rather thin, smart piece of hardware. And there's openings in the front for our hydroponic soil free plants to slide into. Once they're in the system--which includes its own built in water reservoir, its own L.E.D. lighting system--the device starts to sense the world around it, so it knows if it's in a dark basement or if it's in a super bright skyscraper. It knows if the air's really humid or really dry. And it's able to alter its water cycle, its lighting cycles, and also, since this is actively filtering air through the roots, its fan system. So that we can care for plants perfectly in whichever environment the device gets installed into. And we see that as a really important mechanism to enable scaling. If we really want to see natural systems be embedded throughout the built environment in our spaces, they need to be able to think for themselves because no environment is the same as any other. So once the device is hung up on the wall, we don't need any plumbing, we don't need any additional lighting infrastructure. It really is just hanging like art. Plug it in, connect it to Wi-Fi, and that allows the devices to manage the plant care.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:19:22] Are there particular kinds of plants that you use more regularly than others?

Collin Cavote (Biome): [00:19:27] Here we get to really stand on the shoulders of giants. And NASA was one of the leading organizations in studying this phytoremediation process: how plant roots eat air pollution. And there's a amazing book out you can get on Amazon: "50 Best House Plants for Purifying your Air." And so we've generally worked with this list, this cohort of plants. And if you imagine a Venn diagram, we've also then worked with plants that are really good in a hydroponic environment. Not all of those 50 are great. And so we have this really powerful collection of plants that are both the world's best air purifying systems and then simultaneously perform really reliably, robustly, don't attract insects, and can generally put up with a lot of the stresses of a work environment. And with that, we're able to deliver really beautiful aesthetics and make sure that those aesthetics stay beautiful long term.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:20:30] Ok. I'm surprised and astonished every time I hear you explain these things. Is there any other knowledge or awareness that you want people to walk away from this podcast knowing?

Collin Cavote (Biome): [00:20:43] There's a few things, actually, and I think that speaks to how incredible plants in the natural world are to me. I think one of the really exciting things that's happening in this space--being led by the director of biotechnology at Lawrence Berkeley National Labs, for instance--is the fact that when we bring plants into our spaces, we're not only getting to look at something beautiful that reduces our stress levels, that makes us feel more creative, that connects us with living things so we feel less isolated. But those living things are actually introducing beneficial bacteria into the rooms that we exist in.And that is really valuable because it means that things like colds and viruses have more competition. And when those things have more competition, they can't thrive as well. And what we're seeing in numerous pieces of research is that by introducing plants into our spaces, there are fewer sick days in the workplace. I think it's a little frustrating that we have to find so much data to support the fact that plants are good for us. But what's refreshing is that when we look, there is so much evidence.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:21:54] Well, I would just say, if you looked at the top 25 workplaces from office snapshots of 2019 eighty percent of them had massive quantities of plants in them. And so I know that we are more aware of biophilia and a lot of the benefits that access to nature brings to us all. And of course that weaves into our whole idea of multi-sensory design. But what you have added in the collection, the ability to collect the data and feed it back to us for continuous improvement in wellbeing and wellness in the workplace is completely spectacular.

Collin Cavote (Biome): [00:22:36] It's a pretty groundbreaking piece of the products and it fills a need in our awareness of our spaces so that we can act smarter and be more diligent with how we preserve our experience and promote our experience. So the data really is something that we're only beginning to see how it can better improve these experiences. And I think that's gonna be one of the really exciting opportunities to keep exploring. By coupling it with a natural system, it's not so much an investment in data. It's an investment in all of these multifaceted benefits that also just includes data. And I think that that to me feels like a better place for the technology to be, kind of tucked away behind the natural systems, supporting the natural systems and supporting us. But I think the real heart of things is the experience that we get when we get to enjoy looking at a beautiful landscape or engaging with other living things.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:23:39] Thank you very much for your time today, Colin. It's been a completely fascinating conversation. Biome.us Is the web site that you want to check to find out more about Colin's amazing solution. And we wish you all a great day from the ONEder podcast.

Collin Cavote (Biome): [00:23:59] Thanks for having me.