Oftentimes, need is what inspires creative efforts and has forever been the contributor to new inventions or improving upon existing ones.
Amid nationwide concerns among business and industry related to keeping employees safe during the coronavirus pandemic, Parsons business owner John Ray developed a new product to add another layer of protection.
Like many companies, Ray Products Inc., which makes a wide variety of boxes, cartons and game boards, was impacted early by the pandemic.
“Things really hit us hard. Around April, May, we had dropped down to 50 percent capacity. We were really blindsided by it,” Ray said.
He received a Paycheck Protection Program loan to retain his employees as business plummeted. Business dropped to where basically he split the plant and office in half. One week, one half the plant and office would work and then the next week, the other half would work.
“So we were working at 50 percent capacity and had only 50 percent of the employees here at any time too. So we were still able to take care of the customers and get through that,” he said.
With reduced workforce, he said the company wasn’t really implementing any COVID-19 preventions, but in June business picked up again. About that time, Gov. Laura Kelly also issued a mask mandate. Both things led Ray to begin investigating what measures he should have in place to best protect the health of his employees.
“I started researching about what we should do to keep COVID out. Everything I read about temperature checks was not good,” Ray said.
For one thing, people can run a fever for any number of reasons. Perhaps what stood out most notably to Ray was the number of people who would test positive for COVID-19 who never ran a fever or who only had one for a few hours and it went down.
“It’s sure interesting. It sure impacts everyone differently,” Ray said of COVID-19. “I’m looking around and doing this research and it appeared sense of smell was a big deal.”
Article after article showed study after study finding temporary loss of smell, known as anosmia, better predicts COVID-19 than other symptoms such as temperature and cough, he said. Depending on the study, between two-thirds and 80% of people lose their sense of smell, making it one of the clearest indicators someone has the infection.
What was also found is that self-reported symptoms are subjective.
“In self-reporting, when they asked people who tested positive for COVID if they had lost their sense of smell, they would say, ‘No,’ but when they tested them, it turned out they had,” Ray said.
Given the impact on people’s olfactory cells, Ray figured the best test for employees would be one to test their sense of smell, so he searched online. Regardless of multiple studies’ findings, Ray could not find any type of test available to test employees’ sense of smell.
“I would have bought them if they were there because I thought, ‘This makes sense,’” Ray said.
He felt it made so much sense, he decided to create such a product himself, but he knew he needed a test that would be rapid to administer.
Sensible Solutions was the result.
Essentially, what he developed was a type of scratch-and-sniff card to detect loss of smell. Each card is given a singular scent, not revealed until it is scratched. In addition, each card has six icons, including one representing no scent. A person scratches the card and says what kind of scent it is without looking on the reverse side of the card. The answer is on the back of the card, allowing the test administrator to see the correct answer from a safe distance.
It sounds simplistic, but Ray found the process from concept to completion was anything but easy, as considerations for design and development came into play.
“It’s crazy. It even went to the level of, you’ve got these different scents, but your scents have got to be distinct enough on the cards, there is not much similarity. Like you couldn’t have two florals, for instance, on the same card, or two fruits, two citrus.
“And then there was the whole thing of demographics. For instance, there was an option for fresh-cut grass, but a kid from New York City might not know what fresh-cut grass smells like, so you’re trying to find a common scent you could use,” Ray said. “So it was going through that exercise and coming up with a variety of scents that were recognizable by most people. On top of that there are language barriers in some instances because there are people who would potentially not speak English, so we had to develop the iconography for the different scents.”
Beyond product development, he said, there was a big learning curve, as he has never started his own business.
“I bought this business from my parents,” he said of Ray Products. “So inside four months, I started up a new LLC, did prototyping, engineering, marketing, got a provisional patent, all this stuff, on top of us being busy (at Ray Products).”
Testing of Scensible Solutions is now in progress at three different locations.
“We’re just getting going,” Ray said.
Each assessment kit includes an instruction card and 48 scratch-and-sniff cards. All six scents are included in a kit.
If a participant identifies the scent correctly, no further action is needed, and the employee can enter the workplace. If they fail to identify the scent, they are re-tested with a new card to confirm that they’re experiencing a diminished or absent sense of smell. From there, a business can decide if they want to attempt a third try. If the participant fails twice, or all three times, it is recommended they get a COVID-19 test or consult their physician before returning to work or school.
In 30 seconds, Ray said, they are able to do the temperature scan and the Scensible Solutions card.
Ray Products uses its vestibule at the front of the building for scent testing. People come in one at a time, smell a card and get their temperature taken. About 90% of people get it on their first pass. The product is meant to be used in a repetitive environment, such as a workplace or school, where people are being tested on a regular basis. By doing it over and over, people know when their sense of smell is diminished.
“The thing about it is, we all smell differently. … If you smoke, the harder it is to smell. The older you get, the harder it is to smell, and so there is a subset of the population the cards don’t work for because if you can’t smell to begin with, it’s not going to matter, but for most people it does work,” Ray said.
If the business keeps tabs of which workers get the scent on the first, second or third card every day, they know when they can’t smell any of them something is going on.
“That’s the thing about the loss of the sense of smell is all these other symptoms we’re screening people for — Do you have shortness of breath? Do you have a cough? Do you have a fever? Those are all subjective and fairly common, especially this time of year, but how often do you ever remember losing your sense of smell? It just doesn’t happen,” Ray said. “So to me, in my opinion, it’s the best indicator. It’s not everybody, but it’s a pretty good percentage of people that do get COVID who experience this symptom.”
Ray said they have been using the cards at Ray Products for about a month now, starting with his prototype cards.
“Then, last week, there was an employee who came in and felt fine, but she came in and sat down and said, ‘I just wanted you to know I got the card and I realized I couldn’t smell it near as well as I could before. I got it right, but I’m off. I know it.’ I said, ‘OK, well, you technically passed, so let’s have you stay in your office today and we’ll keep an eye on it and see where you’re at tomorrow,’” Ray said. “The next morning the person calls and they said, ‘I can’t smell anything.’ I said, ‘Go get a test.’ She was not symptomatic (otherwise), but she had COVID.”
That was the moment Ray knew positively that his product works.
“It doesn’t work in all cases, obviously, because not everybody who has COVID loses their sense of smell, like not everybody gets a fever. … But it’s another layer of protection,” Ray said. “I haven’t met anybody yet — and I have friends that come at this from all different angles — who wants to get COVID. If we can help reduce its spread and keep it out of the workplace and keep it out of the schools, why not?”
Some people have the perception that with the arrival of COVID-19 vaccinations, the virus will be under control soon. Surveys show upward of 60% of people are now saying they will take the vaccine versus only about 40% being willing a few months ago.
Still, with 40% of the population unvaccinated, and those vaccinated still capable of carrying and transmitting the virus to others while remaining symptom free themselves, employers will likely have to keep protective measures in place for some time.
“Personally, I think it would be great if we were done with COVID by April, but that’s not reality because not everybody is going to get the vaccine. We’ve still got a long way to go,” Ray said. “I hope my product has a short shelf life, for everybody’s sake, but certainly we’ve got six to nine months anyway where we’re going to be needing to do this additional screening.”
Ray said he has had ideas through the years for various things, new products, or a new business and never pursued any of them until now. When he started working on Scensible Solutions, there was nobody offering products to test people’s sense of smell.
“Now, there are a few competing products, but based on what I have seen, I still think ours is the best just because of the nature of it and how quickly you can screen folks for anosmia. It’s exciting,” he said, noting the rapidness of his test and the low cost by comparison. “I think that’s why the product has potential. I know it works. I’ve tried to make it affordable. You can screen for as little as $5 a month per employee, so it’s a reasonable cost.”
Ray said Scensible Solutions is doing a nationwide rollout after the first of the year.
“I made a presentation box that has cards in it and a brochure, and they are going out to school superintendents, university presidents, CEOs, governors. Just trying to get the word out,” Ray said. “We already sent a few feelers out, just here inside the state of Kansas, to different folks.
“That’s where we’re at. It’s exciting. It’s not like it’s high tech. The scratch-and-sniff thing has been around for eons, right. Why is nobody doing this? It’s seemingly so easy. I think part of it was people were reluctant, not knowing what the product life cycle might look like because there is certainly a level of investment involved that you want to be able to recover,” Ray said. “I thought why not? And, if I end up helping somebody, that’s great. That’s the thing, it’s one more layer, but it’s got to be put to use. … If you just look at it from a financial standpoint alone and lost productivity, the product pays for itself. Because if one person comes in and has COVID … you know it’s a chain reaction, like the meat-processing plants,” Ray said. “I certainly believe in it. I wouldn’t be selling it if I didn’t.”