By Marte Hellema, Youth Co:Lab
For Divya Mahendra Rathod becoming an entrepreneur was not always on the cards. At heart, she is a scientist. You can hear the passion in her voice when she talks about organisms and particles. But a personal trauma changed everything. And now her own inventions are set to change the lives of millions of people, especially women, in her home country of India and across the world.
When Divya was 19 years old, in her second year of college she contracted a urinary tract infection (UTI). A painful affliction that affects around 155 million every year. If not properly treated, it can have long-term consequences, such as bladder cancer. While in hospital Divya could not shake the thought that she should do something, invent something to prevent other women from getting sick as well.
Once back in class, she conducted a research project with her professor. A preliminary project in which they invented a product using nanoparticles to stop the spread of bacteria. But she wanted to continue her studies, so left it at that.
Years later, in 2018 she came across an opportunity that reignited her desire to do something about UTIs. She competed in and won the Chancellors Challenge, gaining 5,00,000 INR (around 15,000 USD) to further her idea.
In the meantime, the threat UTIs pose had become even more severe. When Divya had a UTI in 2014 the average recovery period was around two to three months. Just four years later this had gone up to six months.
Delving into the problem she found that unhygienic public toilets were one of the main causes for UTIs and decided to adjust the product she had created in college to something more suitable to be used on public toilets.
Initially, in 2014, HAPITO had been in paint form, which made it impractical and not very user-friendly. With the funding from the Chancellors Challenge, Divya researched and tested other options and turned it into a spray. Making it much easier to apply. Once sprayed on, it creates a protection layer, which ensures that a toilet does not have to be cleaned for a whole month.
So how does it work? Nanotechnology refers to the study or use of different materials in miniscule size, undetectable by the human eye called nanoparticles. Due to their high surface area, nanoparticles often have additional or different properties than what they have in their original or more common form. Silver, for example, is known to be antibacterial, but the nanoparticles of silver are significantly more effective.
If you put different nanoparticles together, it is possible to make a mixture which combines their properties and creates new possibilities for use.
HAPITO contains a combination of nanoparticles, which gives it water and stain repellent properties, as well as being antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral, and antibiofilm. It basically creates a thin transparent film on a toilet that prevents microorganisms from growing and causing infections.
Not only does HAPITO protect women, and other toilet users from UTIs, it also helps save up to 55 percent of the water needed to clean the toilets and minimizes the amount of chemicals that end up in waterbodies.
With the new and improved HAPITO now at the ready, Divya set up Silvery Nanos in the beginning of 2019. As she wanted to address the problem of UTIs through public toilets, her first customers were municipal corporations and other government bodies.
Soon HAPITO was being used in places like the public toilets of railway stations in Mumbai and other cities across the country. Given the sheer number of people using trains in India, things went fast.
Although Silver Nanos was quickly becoming a successful social enterprise, Divya’s transition from scientist to entrepreneur required a steep learning curve. Getting involved with Youth Co:Lab, a project co-led by UNDP and Citi Foundation, helped her overcome many of these challenges.
‘Being a young entrepreneur, you do not know about the market. You do not know how to do a proper pitch. How to present yourself. Through the assignments I had to do as part of the Springboard Programme, I learned all those things.
I developed a website, I learned what kind of questions you need to answer from investors.
Youth Co:Lab has helped us grow from a seed into a plant.’
Divya won the first Youth Co:Lab Challenge in India. And had won more grants and prizes, including from UN WOMEN, IIT EUREKA, BIRAC Government of India, UK Go Global DCMS Programme, Singapore Inspreneur, and NITI AAYOG NMIMS INCUBATION CENTRE, since.
With hard work and dedication, she managed to multiply the grants received plenty of times over through her sales.
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, many of Divya’s peers had to put all business endeavors on hold, but for Divya it created new opportunities to serve her community. Even though she had to face challenges due to the pandemic, especially related to production, her company expanded further.
She launched new products to help combat the virus. To begin with, HAPITO ++, which can be applied to any hard surface not just toilets, like desks, chairs or even doctor’s instruments. HAPIDRY, which can be applied to soft surfaces, like cushions or curtains. And finally, HAPISHIELD, a sanitizer.
COVID-19 also broadened Divya's vision for Silvery Nanos.
‘There are a lot of viruses that are present, but we are not aware about many of them. So, I think I am going to put more emphasis on being antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal, and antibiofilm.’
Between the steep learning curve and the global pandemic, Divya has already had her share of barriers to overcome, but some key challenges remain, especially those that stem from her being a young woman. While women in India are free to study what they want, once they get married, they are expected to make a home and take care of the children.
‘When you talk to distributors, to investors and all, they are much less interested in women entrepreneurs to invest, because they expect them to take a lot of time off. When they get married. When they have a baby. Or when they have to take care of the household.
You don’t get that much respect from society, being a women entrepreneur. Men are much more respected.’
She has had to face a lot of skepticism about her product and about herself. People who doubt her knowledge or the science behind her product, in part because she is a young woman. To them she says:
‘I am a scientist. I have my Masters, and I am doing my PhD in Microbiology. I have the degrees.
But I have also done the groundwork. I have gotten myself dirty by polishing the toilets, by applying the products and cleaning the toilets. Just looking up and dreaming, you do not find the solutions, you have to get down to the ground and try things.’
She has come a long way since she laid in that hospital bed, but she is far from done. She wants to expand her operations regionally and internationally. And at the same time, she wants to do even more for her community, like backing sponsorship runs and supporting NGOs. She wants to give away her products to those most in need, build toilets and spread awareness about hygiene and safety. Do everything in her power to prevent any woman or girl from having to go through what she had to suffer all those years ago.
Co-created in 2017 by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Citi Foundation, Youth Co:Lab aims to establish a common agenda for countries in the Asia-Pacific region to empower and invest in youth so that they can accelerate the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through leadership, social innovation and entrepreneurship. Read more about Youth Co:Lab here.