Penn State Startup spotLESS Materials Earning Big Recognition, Driving Humanitarian Goals

Written by Staff Writer

February 16, 2021

Around the world, more than 140 billion liters of water are flushed down the toilet every day.  And about 4 billion people around the world don’t have access to safe sanitation and almost 1 billion people don’t have any access to toilets. These are many of the same regions experiencing a water crisis.

Those are a few of the global problems that spotLESS Materials hopes to solve. Co-founder of the startup, Birgitt Boschitsch is doing her part by parlaying her doctorate in mechanical engineering into an exciting company with humanitarian goals. Already in 2021, spotLESS Materials earned a spot among the finalists of P&G Ventures’ 2021 CES Innovation Challenge and the startup also exhibited with Aisin Seiki at the virtual CES 2021. In 2020, Boschitsch was named among Forbes’ 30 Under 30 in Science.

When the idea struck, she was a PhD student in the mechanical engineering department at Penn State. Her academic advisor’s area of expertise was in nature-inspired engineering.

“That was the whole reason that I became an engineer and went to grad school. I really wanted to be able to make things that have a positive impact on people.”

As she explains, “Because that was his area of expertise and where we as a lab were focused research-wise, we were approached by a group from the United Kingdom funded by the Gates Foundation for the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge. They were interested in finding ways for their system to repel human waste in regions experiencing a water crisis.”

Initially, the goal in the academic setting was to develop technology that could make a surface so slippery that human waste could slide away, but as the development process continued, the team realized that they didn’t want it to end with just a research paper. They saw the potential to use the technology to do meaningful, impactful things in the world. “That was the whole reason that I became an engineer and went to grad school,” Boschitsch explains. “I really wanted to be able to make things that have a positive impact on people.”

Once they developed a working technology, Boschitsch and her advisor, Tak-Sing Wong, decided to start a company. In 2018, spotLESS Materials was launched.

They also realized that sanitation isn’t the only area where sticky problems lurk. Boschitsch says, “Surface contamination is ubiquitous. It affects all different industries from sanitation to marine applications to automotive applications to medical applications.”

What’s more, the concept of surface contamination — no matter what industry it’s in — can have serious ramifications. For example, in the marine industry, barnacles that attach to the hulls of ships can increase fuel consumption by 40%. Whatever the industry, surface contamination leads to waste in one form or another.

“That could be wasted water, wasted energy or wasted fuel — and that’s what we’re trying to solve. If we can keep a surface clean, we can avoid those consequences before having to fix them,” notes Boschitsch.

Being close to the customer and engaging with them has been helpful as spotLESS Materials constantly iterates on its products. In addition to engaging directly with consumers, the startup is also engaged with other businesses, including the automotive and medical industries, that have all sorts of sticky problems. Although the applications are different, the goal remains the same — to prevent surface contamination.

“I have some friends in the startup world who are located in big cities and they have to pay a lot for their lab space. Our location in Innovation Park has given us access to the equipment we need.” 

Taking the technology from product to market was an eye-opening challenge that Boschitsch and her team were eager to challenge. The support of the Penn State and Happy Valley community was invaluable. From access to Penn State facilities like its Materials Characterizations Lab to proximity to investors like 1855 Capital, the unique entrepreneurial ecosystem has nourished this startup in countless ways.

Additionally, Boschitsch explains, “I have some friends in the startup world who are located in big cities and they have to pay a lot for their lab space. Our location in Innovation Park has given us access to the equipment we need. As a startup, it would be very limiting to have to find that kind of equipment and buying it would be very challenging.”

To use the current iteration of spotLESS Materials products, users spray the coating on a clean surface. From there, it grows nano hairs that work like a small sponge infused with liquid lubricant, which increases the slipperiness of the surface, preventing almost anything from attaching to it, including sludge-like materials. Any residue that does stick can be washed away with 90% less water. In addition to saving water, that means less cleaning agent is needed to maintain treated surfaces. Since the surface is so slippery, it also prevents the growth of bacteria, keeping things much cleaner.

To explore spotLESS Materials home or auto collection or to learn more about this exciting startup, visit https://spotlessmaterials.com

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