Cleanwell: Partnering with Nature to Clean


Nestled a few blocks away from the Embarcadero in San Francisco is an enigma in the clean technology startup world, Cleanwell. I say enigma, because when you think of the term clean technology (cleantech), images of renewable energy, recycling, and information technology come to mind.  However, not only will this clean technology from Cleanwell help you clean your hands and surfaces, it harmonizes with the power of nature to do it.

Cleanwell was incubated at IDEO utilizing human-centered design, beginning with a hand sanitizing product that you can easily carry in your pocket or your purse.  You might think that hand sanitizers are a dime a dozen, but the key differentiator is Cleanwell’s active cleaning ingredient.

Activating nature
The active cleaning ingredient for Cleanwell is not alcohol. It’s not triclosan, benzalkonium chloride, or some hard to pronounce (dare I say hazardous) chemical compound.  The active cleaning ingredient derives from something we can use to spice and season our foods.  It is something we may even have in our backyard gardens. It’s the herb thyme.  Specifically, it is a patented formulation of thyme oil.  One more point for learning from nature!

“Let’s look and see how these problems are addressed in biological systems. Part of the problem is that we make things out of context, because that is the easiest way to break them down and figure out how they work.” says Dr. Larry Weiss, Chief Science Officer of Cleanwell.  Dr. Weiss is a physician-turned-cleantech public health entrepreneur.

Dr. Weiss continues, “In nature, they are never taken out of context.  Solving a problem out of context affords little assurance that you won’t actually make things much worse.”

Thyme also has historical credibility to it. For instance, for thousands of years, it was used as an antiseptic in Roman, Greek, and Indian medicine. Not only that, but thyme doesn’t take a massive amount of resources to grow.

Activating behavior
I am going to ask you to do something that Dr. Weiss asked me to do.  In your sustainable minds, conjure up an image of nature.  Now, are there any people in it?  Having good green chemistry is only one part of the equation, the other part is about human behavior.  This leads to another differentiation for Cleanwell, it’s not just a clean technology company, but a people-based company.

“[Cleanwell] is at the intersection between technology, innovation, wellness, and public health.  And to a certain extent human behavior, some of my friends say I’ve given up medicine to become an anthropologist.”  says Dr. Weiss.

Dr. Weiss referred to a study done on a bootcamp for Navy sailors.  90 percent got sick, yet the facilities were immaculately clean.  So why were they getting sick?  It was discovered that rolling admissions from all 50 states brought in various germs that caused illnesses.  They were ordered to wash their hands with soap and water 3-5 times a day.  With only about 50 percent compliance, there was 45 percent decrease in respiratory illnesses, just by washing their hands.

Washing hands can prevent the spread of disease, but not everyone does it.  Some of Cleanwell’s ethnographic research suggests this could be due to various factors, ranging from dirty public restrooms to not having any washing facilities available. Perhaps something as simple as a hand sanitation spray could help prevent the spread of germs in the public space?

A sample of Cleanwell and partnership products.

Activating partnerships
Cleanwell has grown since its incubation at IDEO, creating more than just hand sanitizer in a bottle.  It has its own line of soaps, wipes, and sprays.  But more interestingly, it has partnered to co-create products based on cleaner, safer, greener chemistry, with traditional brands like Scotch Brite.  It even has partnerships with brands associated with the sustainability space like Method and Seventh Generation.

But the most crucial partnership of all is that with nature.  Nature has immense power and potential to help us not only in health, but in our everyday lives.  What other simple innovations from nature have made you healthier?  How else can partnering with nature, such as Cleanwell, mutually benefit people and the planet?

Image Credit: Jonathan Mariano

Jonathan Mariano is an MBA candidate with the Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco, CA. His interests include the convergence between lean & green and pursuing free-market based sustainable solutions.

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