When Divya Rathod woke up with a sharp pain in her stomach and uterus one 2014 morning, she assumed it was her period. She ignored the pain and carried on, even as it got worse over the next few days.
Things came to a head when the pain became so unbearable that she fell unconscious while attending a college lecture. “I called my father, who immediately rushed me to the hospital. The doctors conducted tests, which revealed that I had contracted a Urinary Tract Infection (UTI),” she tells The Better India.
At the time, Divya was a 19-year-old student of microbiology at Bhavan’s College, Mumbai. “I used to play football and would often use the public toilet on the field, which was unhygienic. I assume I caught the infection there,” she says.
She spent the next four months missing classes and undergoing treatment. “I suffered from stomach bloating, diarrhoea and urine issues. I even lost 10 kilos,” she says. “At times, I would spend an hour in the toilet because of the pain. Frequent water consumption would lead to additional trips to the loo. I also caught a vaginal infection during that phase.”
Nashik-based Obstetric Gynaceaologist Dr Neelima Kulkarni says, “There are multiple reasons a UTI can happen. It could be the infection due to local vagina perineum, a fever, dehydration, diabetes, obesity, old age, or even pregnancy.”
Dr Neelima says women have a high probability of catching the infection due to a short urinary tract and the possibility of coming in contact with the toilet seat. “Squat toilets are the safest to use. However, contact with an unhygienic western toilet seat, or one that is moist with water or urine droplets, can make one highly susceptible to a UTI,” she says.
She adds that in many cases, women catch a fungal infection from a toilet seat, which can also lead to a UTI. “Such factors depend entirely on personal hygiene,” Dr Neelima notes.
Divya says that the pain that she went through due to her UTI made her want to ensure that other women don’t have to suffer through it.
She decided to use her skills and knowledge in microbiology to conceive a spray that prevents the spread of UTIs in public spaces. Today, lakhs of commuters using public toilets in Mumbai and Navi Mumbai are benefiting from her product.
Keeping women safe from UTIs, one spray at a time
After recovery, Divya, now 27, approached her guide at the college to formulate the product. “My infection helped me learn that more than 75 per cent of women contract a UTI at least once in their lifetime. A major health concern was being ignored,” she says.
She adds that other products in the market are niche and cater to personal hygiene. “Disinfectant sprays and other solutions are limited to personal use and are a temporary measure. A person using the toilet without a personal care product is still at risk. Very few products exist to help women at large. Moreover, not all women can afford such products,” she says.
Initially, Divya created a paint that worked as a film on the toilet. It could be sprayed on the inside and outside surfaces to disinfect the toilets. She exhibited the product at Science Congress in 2015, but it failed to attract potential buyers.
“The product could only be used on a new toilet. But it was practically unfeasible to replace all the public toilets by adding the paint layer,” she says.
Divya continued her pursuit to improve the product. “I started my post-graduation studies at NMIMS and simultaneously developed the product, focussing on making something that could be used as a spray on any toilet surface. I also focussed on eliminating germs, bacteria, fungus and viruses with the new product,” she adds.
Three years later, she created a product called the Hapito Protector, which is a nano-alloy formula that forms a thin micron layer on the surface of toilets. “The layer is bacteriostatic, antibacterial, antiviral, anti-fungal and anti-biofilm in nature. The film formed over the surface makes it water and stain repellent, and unaffected by scratching. It can resist pH values ranging between 2 and 11. The active nanoparticles trapped in the film control the growth of bacteria and kill them,” she explains.
Divya says her product also saves up to 55 per cent water. “This product does not require water for cleaning toilets, unlike conventional and harmful chemicals like phenyl and other acidic components. It thus saves the environment from toxic chemicals and protects aquatic lives,” she adds.
In 2018, she presented her new product at the Chancellor’s Challenge and won a prize of Rs 5 lakh. She received additional funding of Rs 10 lakh through participation in competitions organised by BIRAC, IIT Eureka and the RB INGEN. In 2019, Divya used the prize money to launch her startup Silvery Nanos Innovations LLP and incubated it under the Atal Innovation Centre (AIC). Divya says her products have been tested and certified by these government agencies.
“We bagged our first contract with the Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation (NMMC), followed by Vashi bus depot, and then the Mumbai Railways to cover station toilets from Churchgate to Borivali. The startup has tied up with the Smita Thackeray Foundation, Mukti Foundation, and ASBB NGO to disinfect these toilets,” she says
Divya says her startup covers about 150 toilets across stations and bus depots. “We also cover other public spaces like malls, corporate offices, and educational institutions. The disinfectant lasts about three months. But considering the heavy amount of visitors in public spaces, the toilets are sprayed with the disinfectant every month and included in the monthly plan by the contractor,” she says.
She has since expanded her range of products to include 16 types, including toilet disinfectants, surface disinfectants, air fresheners, and more. “A 100 ml spray bottle protects a toilet for three months and costs Rs 299. Our other products last longer and show effects up to nine months,” she says.
The total sales generated since inception have earned Divya’s startup a revenue of Rs 60 lakh, she says.
Protect rather than cure
Divya, however, faced the daunting task of making customers and businesses believe in her products. “The use of nanotechnology for such products was fairly new when I was developing it, and people failed to trust and have faith in it. At present, many products in the market use a similar technology, which serves as a competition. But also helps customers believe in the technology,” she says.
She notes that clearing misconceptions around hygiene was another task. “Advertisements have created a notion among customers that a clean toilet means it should be sparkling white. However, the issue is beyond that,” she adds.
She says the contractors also doubted using her products. “They feared that the commissions from using toilet cleaning products would decline and doubted how using a spray without water could disinfect a toilet. Many do not believe UTI to be a concern. But one time, one of our contractors contracted the disease, and he has been taking it seriously,” she explains.
Divya hopes her product receives more visibility and benefits the population at large. “I want to protect people from contracting the disease rather than curing it,” she says.
Edited by Divya Sethu