Neal St. Anthony
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Lea and Rick Barron, owners of Barron Event Planning & Management, a firm that has worked with many businesses in the Twin Cities, realized in February that the coronavirus outbreak would disrupt big gatherings for months.

One of their big clients, Boston Scientific, early on canceled the conferences it had lined up the Barrons’ company to orchestrate in 2020.

But the couple kept in touch with executives at the firm and quickly came to a realization: the new “event” would be employees returning to labs, factories, stores and offices.

Someone would be needed to orchestrate that and the Barrons decided they could do it.

“I didn’t see any other tow trucks coming to get us out of the ditch,” Rick Barron said. “We developed a protocol with Boston Scientific based on U.S. Centers for Disease Control and HIPPA [patient privacy] standards. We studied the disease and saw elevated temperatures among those who eventually develop the virus.

Barron put up more than $200,000 in capital, and recruited principals in technology, health and operations to form VenueScreen in March. The company is already up to 80 workers.

“We’ve now done [about] 1 million screenings, about 8,000 employees daily at Boston Scientific, Cambria, Polaris, New Horizon day-care centers, golf tournaments and other sports events and enterprises around the country,” he said.

The company is one of many in the state to spot an opportunity in the pandemic after it hurt their existing business.

“This is probably the biggest ‘event’ of our lifetime,” Barron said. He said he and the other principals haven’t taken compensation and have turned down opportunities to sell the company based on early success.

“We are not profiteers,” Barron said. “My wife and I funded the company. The others have invested time. In the long term, our guess is that there will be a vaccine, some way of mitigating this coronavirus.

“For now, we are in the business of calming people, of creating a perception of safety. An investment in this by a company is an investment in insurance for the future.”

VenueScreen provides dual-lens thermal-imaging systems to rapidly assess the temperature of up to 16 people at a time as they enter a building. The one-stop screening station is complete with hand sanitizer and a face mask for any employee who needs one.

There have been 200 instances out of 1 million screenings where people have been detained with an elevated temperature. They are discreetly sidetracked, questioned about their health and referred for COVID-19 testing. The thermal screening can’t detect the virus, only the temperature, which also may indicate common flu.

Zarir Erani, a computer scientist and VenueScreen principal who also is president of Allen Interactions, a Mendota Heights-based e-learning and software engineering firm, said VenueScreen delivers small systems for about $2,500 and large ones for up to $20,000 to clients. The hardware used by VenueScreen and U.S. competitors is made in China.

“The units are off the shelf,” Erani said. “We source them and upgrade them with U.S.-made firmware and customized U.S. software. We’re trying to help the business owner create an environment of safety. One of the things we’ve noticed is that people stop coming to work when they feel sick. They don’t want to shut down the business. This has helped change behavior.”

There are up to 70 companies working the thermal-screening business in the United States. The U.S. has banned several Chinese firms on suspicion of spying on American citizens.

While many companies are considering thermal scans or individual temperature checks as they open their offices, the magazine of the Society of Human Resource Management recently pointed out the limits to such tactics.

Thermal scanners are not medical devices, it noted, and experts believe the coronavirus is carried by some people who show no symptoms of the virus or its related disease, COVID-19. Coughing, headaches and an inability to smell are more common symptoms of the disease than fever.

Boston Scientific workers seemed comfortable being screened last Tuesday at the company’s Minnetonka office.

“The product is designed to get people to feel comfortable about getting back to work,” Erani said. “They are pleased a protocol is in place.”

Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at nstanthony@startribune.com.