Max Simonovsky’s two-and-a-half-year-old son was well trained in routine handwashing. But one day when the water in his Rehovot neighborhood was shut off for repairs, the boy reasoned that if water wasn’t available, he therefore had no need to wash his hands after playing outside.
The Israeli dad was fascinated by his toddler’s way of thinking and discussed it with friends. They realized that the same line of logic may apply to millions of children in areas of the world that lack running water or electricity.
Further investigation revealed that two leading causes of death in young children in the developing world are diarrhea and respiratory infections. UNICEF and the World Health Organization say both could be significantly reduced by hygiene practices such as handwashing.
Simonovsky had discovered the basis for a social-impact startup, Soapy, which he founded in 2017.
“Better hygiene habits require water, soap and training, and also positive feedback and community support,” says Simonvsky. “We realized we could provide all of that.”
Soapy’s off-grid, solar-powered, self-sustaining hygiene station uses water pulled from the atmosphere. A smart system starts the washing cycle automatically when someone approaches, producing an accurate dose of soap and water. The unit operates around the clock.
Local stakeholders partnered with the Israeli startup to install the units in community centers, clinics or schools and develop educational programs to encourage the handwashing habit.
The first Soapy Station is setup in Bagepalli, India, with others coming in Delhi and Bangalore through a partnership with Swasti Health Catalyst, a nonprofit that implements social innovations to ensure health and wellbeing of marginalized Indian communities.
“I met community leaders in Delhi and it was interesting to notice that most asked for units in their own homes first, before presenting the idea to the community,” Simonovsky tells ISRAEL21c. “We are trying to work in this direction now because if you have community support it will be easier to implement.”
Simonovsky explains that some of the technology for the Soapy Stations was already in the market while other aspects were uniquely adapted.
“The soap formulation, for example, had to be redone because the usual formulation requires much more water than we can provide, wastes too much water in places with water scarcity and allows fewer people to wash their hands. From the same 100 liters of water, our system can provide more than 600 washing cycles, while other handwashing systems provide between 50 and 200 cycles.”
He says that Soapy’s unique technology for harvesting humidity and transforming it into safe water without additional infrastructure “is significantly cheaper than existing technologies in the field, providing maximum hygiene with minimum costs.”
Headquartered in Tel Aviv, Soapy is structured as a for-profit social-impact business.
“If you want to make a real impact you need to be profitable because otherwise you rely on external funders and if they disappear, you do too,” says Simonovsky, whose background is in pharma and medical-device business development.
Soapy began in the Novus accelerator at Simonovsky’s alma mater, the College of Management Academic Studies in Rishon LeZion, where it was chosen best startup of 2017.
The company was a WeWork Creator Awards regional Israel finalist, won $12,000 as first runner-up in the 2018 iCreate Awards finals in India, and received a Pears Challenge grant for its potential to address a critical challenge of the developing world.
Soapy is now in the 8200 EISP accelerator. At first bootstrapped, Soapy is now raising funds.
“We are trying to make the units as cheap as possible as we improve them, and to make them sustainable for very deprived communities,” says Simonovsky.
Soapy has been approached by NGOs and industrial companies in India, the US, UK and Africa.
“We have the potential for this technology to be implemented into many more countries but we need the right strategic partners so for now our focus is on India. When we scale up to the mass-production level we probably will manufacture the stations in India but all the R&D and some of the engineering will remain in Israel.”
The business model and price for each place of needvary greatly. The units are priced between $400 and $1,500. Each community pays a token fee to the partnering NGO or other franchise to cover maintenance and consumables.
Simonovsky is enthusiastic about the potential of Soapy to improve children’s lives.
“Children who are healthy come to school more often, so the impact of good hygiene is not only better health but better education,” he says.
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