The Innovators: BrainLit
In this series, Bisnow highlights people and companies pushing the commercial real estate industry forward in myriad ways. Click here to read Q&As with all the innovators Bisnow has interviewed so far.
Before the crisis, health and well-being in the workplace fell into the buzzy amenity category. These days, they are considered crucial.
While many landlords have rushed to revamp spaces to encourage office workers' return, most people are continuing to work remotely. In New York City, for example, only 10% of companies have come back from remote work even as the ramped-up vaccine rollout and loosened restrictions have brought back some of the city bustle.
Now the greatest threat for office real estate owners is not that their buildings could be breeding grounds for infection but that workers will have come to love working from anywhere so much that many won't return at all.
Workers are now asking why they should go into the office when they get the job done just as well from home, said Niclas Olsson, the CEO of Swedish company BrainLit AB. Olsson said BrainLit has an answer to that, in the form of BioCentric lighting that recreates the effects of natural lighting in indoor environments.
Lund-headquartered BrainLit was founded by Tord Wingren, one of the inventors of Bluetooth technology, and offers what the company describes as the world's first lighting system that is individually tailored to a person’s unique biology.
Within the collection of products is UV disinfection lighting that can eliminate pathogens, alongside personalized lighting said to improve immune systems and circadian rhythms, which makes people more alert, healthy and, ultimately, more productive.
It is being used in hospitality, education, retail and offices around the world, with Swedbank and Sony among its clients. It officially launched in the U.S. in March this year, ready for rolling out in offices many workers will be returning to for the first time in over a year.
Bisnow spoke to Olsson from BrainLit's office in Lund, on the southern tip of Sweden. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Bisnow: Tell me a little bit about Sweden at the moment in terms of opening/reopening.
Niclas Olsson: Sweden chose a different path than most countries. And we are still arguing if that was the right or the wrong path. Our neighboring countries, Norway, Finland and even Germany, have closed down quite heavily. Early on in the pandemic situation, we decided, or the government decided, that that was not the right path to take because the cost would be too high in other sectors, not just financial costs, but mental health. That was predominantly the reason.
I'm sitting in my office now. We have never closed down. Very few companies have really closed down their offices. We have incentivized our team members, as much as possible, to work from home and to go to the office if they don't travel by public means. If you're traveling by car or bicycle, you're free to come in and do what you need to do. But you're not allowed to come to the office if you are using public transportation. That is the policy that most companies here have taken.
Bisnow: As a CEO reflecting back over the past year, do you think that was the right approach? Are you happy with the approach that Sweden took?
Olsson: Now I'm representing myself and not the company. I have a 20-year background in infection prevention. I think I have a lot of insight into the challenges of fighting, not a pandemic, but infectious environments. We did make mistakes early on in the pandemic in Sweden.
Having a society open, you need to protect the weak and you need to take measures of not letting any infectious disease enter into the care centers for the elderly, and we failed that brutally. So there's some mistakes. But overall, I would say, based on the data points at that time, that I think Sweden took the right position. I think [the virus] will be two or three years more, I guess. I don't think we will be out of this in the next 24 months, for sure.
Bisnow: I know that you're rolling out in the U.S. this week. How have conversations with the landlords been so far, considering everything of the last year and considering the financial pressures that they're all facing now?
Olsson: I would say close to phenomenal, because everybody today — the landlords, the property owners, the construction companies, everybody — understands that buildings need to be transformed to be places where you actually deliver an environment, rather than just a room. And the environment has to be sustainable, not only in terms of materials chosen but also that people who go into a building need to know that, 'I will actually feel better biologically here than if I would be at home.'
I think that is going to be a competitive factor for real estate and the landlords going forward. What kind of the holistic, sustainable and value proposition do we have? Yes, we are not consuming too much electricity, we are recirculating the air, we are efficient in our cooling. But from a tenant perspective, from a user perspective, why would I pay a premium to go into this building? Why would I spend more money staying at Fifth Avenue rather than going into New Jersey? I think that landlords today are trying to figure out new business models that address the tenants’ need for technology to become better.
It's really interesting, the Danish Technology University has done a study with our technology. And they have found out that working in a Biocentric light environment — and this is scientific and validated statistically — that [there is] a 11.8% better cognitive performance.
When we are talking to two of the largest banks in New York City, and they have studied this kind of cognitive improvement, not only will you become healthier, which means fewer sick days, you will become more productive, but you will also be smarter. And this is what we have seen is really interesting to the tenants: that if I can have an environment where my staff will get better health, but they will also perform better and they will make wiser decisions.
So I think that the perception of buildings is going to change going forward. It's not just about lights for sight, it's not only light for emotional purposes — 'oh, this looks nice.' It's going to also be light for biological reasons.
Bisnow: Was there a big shift in the terms of the marketing or the rollout approach that you had after the pandemic happened and after this new conversation about remote versus office? Did that change the way that you were pushing or promoting your product?
Olsson: Not really. We added the aspect of safety that wasn't an issue before the pandemic. What we have done is that our core delivery has always been the same.
We have a truly mind-blowing project at a hospital here in Sweden where they’re using our technology in the ICU for neonatal. Before the pandemic, we had delegations coming in from U.S., and we always took them to this hospital. Because it's so powerful when you have a nurse explain that we are saving 30% more children that we could do before. And then they say, 'Come on, don't tell me that the light system saves kids as well.'
And we say no, that's not the case. The case is that, when you work in a biologically correct environment, premature babies gain weight quicker, they get into a correct sleep cycle quicker. So you can increase the turnaround time for babies, they don't need to stay as long in ICU. So you can actually have more babies coming into the ICU, and hence more babies will be saved.
So what the pandemic has changed is that we have added them to our value proposition that we can also ensure that environments are pathogen-free.
One of the largest U.S. retail chains, I can’t say their name, they are now starting to equip their stores with our technology. It’s not only offices that are in for a transformation. If you look into the change in purchasing patterns, that people are getting more and more used to, 'I go to Amazon and I buy this' — how could a retail chain survive if they can't offer something that is different to before? And in this case, this retail chain will communicate, ‘Our stores are safer than if you go anywhere else.’
So I think that this kind of different aspects of health and safety, productivity, color rendering that natural light is, of course, better. So if you want to sell merchandise or you want to show an office building in its best shape, then you need to work with as much natural light as possible. So there are multiple factors that have an impact.
Bisnow: Do you find that there are cultural differences? I mean, you're a Scandinavian company, and Scandinavia is notorious for focusing on happiness and well-being and health. When you're operating in the U.S. market, it is a different culture. How have you adjusted, what approach have you taken?
Olsson: In Europe, there is a greater understanding for the individual needs. In the U.S., I have a gut feeling that you look more on the ROI. Lucky for us, we can always prove that. Let me give you one example. Sony Corp. is one of our bigger customers. And when we started to communicate with the Japanese, we said, ‘Our technology is so quick to validate.'
This is something that American customers like as well. When we presented this to Sony that either a saliva test or a blood test could show how quickly each and every one responded to the technology, that's how we convinced the Japanese.
We're taking a little bit the same approach, or more evidence-based approach in the U.S. and in Asia than we do in Europe. Europe is more based on the happiness index; people are happier, more satisfied if they're working in a good environment. But a good environment doesn't really sell itself in the U.S. or in Japan. You need to have data points indicating that this is good for the P&L.
Bisnow: There's been a lot of spotlight on the inequities and the challenges that people are facing. I wonder if workplaces will become a little more in the U.S., a little more focused on people's happiness and health than they have maybe been in the past?
Olsson: I think it's difficult to answer. I mean, the U.S. is such a huge market that you see islands that are heading in that direction. We have a lot of activities in New York and the major metropolitan areas, but funnily enough that in some parts of Kentucky, too, people are super innovative. We have orders from healthcare systems and warehouse operators that you wouldn't expect. You would expect, of course, New York, Boston, San Francisco, Bay Area, Chicago — the tech hubs.
I do think that to get the best talent, it's not just enough [just] paying. For example, being a woman, why would you expect the 30% higher probability to get breast cancer because you work in an environment that is not biologically correct? I think many women will start saying that.
Women react much quicker than men in a positive way [to the technology]. We have had a number of installations in Europe where women with severe migraine attacks [had the migraines] completely disappeared. And that is because a migraine is normally triggered by high flickering. Since our system is pretty much flicker-free, we don't cause those reactions.
So on top of getting better biological health, you also get better well-being since you're not exposed to headaches or migraine attacks, etc. So I think that would become more and more common in the U.S. as well.
If you're talking about, if I would guess, a big admin support center in the outskirts of Tampa doing kind of back-office services for a bank, they will probably not be as quick to invest as the headquarter in New York, where you're paying people $200K-plus per year versus $35K per year. In Europe, it’s a little bit the opposite. You have to treat people that make less better than people that make more. I don't really see that in the U.S. so far.
Bisnow: I would definitely work somewhere if they told me that they had a system that would help me sleep better!
Olsson: If you're exposed to natural lights during the day, you sleep better and deeper during the night. Most people say, ‘I sleep so good when I'm on vacation because I relax.' There's no scientific correlation between sleeping because you relax. But what normally happens when you're on vacation is that you spend more time outdoors. If you go to another city, you walk on the streets to enjoy the city, or you ski or play golf, you go swimming or you go beaching. As a consequence, you get the right amount of natural light to trigger your circadian rhythm.
That's the kind of effect we bring into the offices. If I hear some negative comments about our technology, it’s people saying, ‘Well, I used to go back home from my office, I put my kids to bed, and then I could put in another few hours of work. Now I put my kids to bed and I fall asleep as well. I haven't slept as much since I was 17, 18 years old.’ [Over the last] 10 years, the average amount of sleep in Europe has declined by an hour. This is really destroying our health.
Bisnow: So you said you're working with a big retailer. You are working with some banks in the city. Can you give me a sense of the types of people in the U.S. that are interested in your product without naming names, if you can't?
Olsson: I would say pretty much all the big banks in the U.S. are piloting our technology, and insurance companies as well, and aircraft manufacturers. I do think that we are at an inflection point where people will understand that we need technology.
The eighth-largest real estate company in the world is an Asian company named CapitaLand. They have installed our technology in their future development laboratory in Singapore because they are working with the assumption of: What if the world doesn't get any better? How are we going to create biological environments in offices, in retail and in hospitality settings that are still good for health and make people happy or work at a higher level of well-being? And we see that exactly the same questions … now reflected in the projects we do in the United States. People are planning for maybe a future with more pandemics, with climate change.
Bisnow: I talk to a lot of people in real estate, and there are some people who are just waiting for things to go back to the way they were in January 2020 or December '19.
Olsson: It's going to be good again. But there will be different ways of interacting, different ways of meeting people. I think that offices will have more biological transition centers. So if you have a delegation coming in, you might not invite them into your core office. You will have meeting areas, you will have different ways of interacting in a biological safe way.
People that are buying our technology today in Europe, and they pretty much all say the same, we do not invest in anti-Covid technology, we are thinking about the next pandemic. We will never, ever want to be in the same position, three years from now again. I think that many people, at least in Europe, say that Covid is just a wake-up call, that this is what we need to be prepared for in our offices, in retail and in our hospitality settings.