“Wow, so 2020 happened and hand washing has never been more important!” Hand hygiene has been a hot topic of conversation the world over, since the Covid-19 pandemic began. And for the entrepreneurs and 2016 US James Dyson Award runners-up, Shubham Issar and Amanat Anand, the past five years have focused on ensuring the youngest in society know the importance of hand hygiene too.
Meet SoaPen. A colourful pen made from soap encouraging hand hygiene practice for young children. “We wanted to come at the problem from a fun perspective, from the perspective of making handwashing, just the act of it, fun. That’s how we came up with the idea of SoaPen; a soap kids can draw with on their hands.”
Understanding the disparity in hand hygiene education globally, Shubham and Amanat invented their SoaPen product to help educate families and make the otherwise boring activity playful and engaging for early years. Following Hand Hygiene Day last month, the inventors tell us how they launched SoaPen and why they encourage other young inventors to submit their ideas to the James Dyson Award, as they did five years ago.
How did you both meet and come up with your invention, SoaPen?
Shubham: So Amanat and I, we both grew up in New Delhi in India. We came to the USA for design school and met whilst studying in the Industrial Design programme at Parsons School of Design in New York City. We've actually never met in Delhi, even though we both grew up there. Post-graduation, we were very interested in designing for impact and excited by designing for good. We found the UNICEF Wearables for Good Challenge, which highlighted problems that mothers and infants around the world were facing. Everything from lack of emergency responses, maternal health, to the problem that we responded to, which was high rates of infant mortality. Did you know more than 50% of infectious diseases that can lead to fatalities can be avoided by just washing your hands with soap? And growing up in Delhi, we knew the problems around hygiene, and hand hygiene in particular. But we grew up, luckily for us, with parents who understood the importance of handwashing with soap. We went to schools that had soap readily available for us to use whenever we wanted. But that’s not the case in a lot of low-income schools the world over, not just in India. So, we wanted to come at the problem from a fun perspective, from the perspective of making handwashing, just the act of it, fun. That’s how we came up with the idea of SoaPen; a soap kids can draw with on their hands. With SoaPen, kids are encouraged to draw all over their hands. And in removing traces of the drawing, they consciously spend time washing hands for 20 to 40 seconds. Parents can also check if kids properly wash their hands or not by looking for left over traces of the drawing. Ultimately the idea is kids have fun, but also properly wash their hands for the right amount of time.
When did the James Dyson Award come onto your radar, and what inspired you to enter?
Amanat: While we were studying at Parsons, the James Dyson Award was introduced to us by all our faculty and looked upon as one of the only industrial design awards out there. And I think just every industrial designer loves all of Dyson's products, so that kind of adds to the wow factor of the Dyson Award. So, we became familiar with the competition while we were undergraduates. And in our senior year, when we were graduating, they told us, "Oh, you only have a few more years to apply for this. So, if you do have an idea, make sure you do submit." So we were aware of the Award and its timeline before we'd even seen the website.
I remember some people at our university were even applying with one or two different ideas – whether it was their favourite project or wanting to see if their ideas had potential to go further. As a young designer, getting that recognition is so important.
How did getting recognised as a James Dyson Award National runner-up help SoaPen?
Amanat: It’s the Award we’re personally most excited about being recognised by, because it’s industrial design, which is what we studied. So that’s a big part for us. And the press around it all and getting that stamp of approval too. Then there’s the community that comes with being part of the James Dyson Award. We always look forward to seeing who wins each year.
Shubham: The support from the Award after taking part has been incredible too. Opportunities have come our way year after year which we’re super grateful for. We were runners-up in 2016 and so the James Dyson Award has been a big constant in our journey over the past five years, as we launched SoaPen!
What were your main lessons learnt from entering the Award?
Shubham: With James Dyson, the emphasis on prototyping and continually iterating your idea, whilst being yourself, has been a big inspiration for us. Even in college, we learnt a lot about Dyson through the James Dyson Foundation and took part in a prototyping workshop they ran. At school, we also took apart Dyson vacuums to understand how smartly they're made. That value and emphasis on prototyping was big for us. It’s also always made us feel okay about the millions of prototypes that we've made and that this is a core part of the design process! We’re continuously changing. We're just relaunching a SoaPen 2.0 version where we've taken feedback from the past year of selling and parents' feedback. So it’s become a part of how we are as designers – always thinking about prototyping!
We also learnt to highlight the most important thing about our product, and emphasise putting the user first. It’s a huge win when you’ve gone through such a lengthy process and looking at your product from so many angles.
Amanat: Going through the motions of the Award application also made us step back, pause and reflect on all the things that are happening in a more holistic sense, which is always helpful.
“We sold out our entire inventory within two-and-a-half weeks, it was insane! And then, post that, wow, 2020 happened, and hand washing has never been more important!”
What stage was your invention at when you entered, and what developments came immediately after?
Shubham: When we entered the Award it was just an idea. We had some prototypes, and of course, we'd done some initial testing with different projects that we had made. So we had some proof that the idea worked and was something parents and kids were interested in. Then after the Award we began R&D. We also did a kick starter in 2017 to fund our large-scale production. I think the hardest part for us was finding the right partners to work with on the manufacturing side and the chemical engineering side. But we made sure we surrounded ourselves with advisors who guided us on the right path. We finally launched the product in late 2018/early 2019 in the US, and were primarily selling on Amazon. Largely because we knew that customers and parents were already using that site for purchasing. And as a bootstrap company, we don't have to spend so much on marketing. So we sold our products for about a year. It was kind of hard to sell on Amazon, because you're a niche product in such a large category. There's so much noise around, so how are they finding you when you're so bootstrapped? But we got an article with Real Simple, which pushed the business forward for us. Our wholesale had picked up quite a lot, but the Real Simple article was a big turning point for us. We sold out our entire inventory within two-and-a-half weeks, it was insane! And then, post that, wow, 2020 happened, and hand washing has never been more important! And who would've thought the emphasis on hand washing would increase so much. So we decided to go back to the drawing board in 2020 after selling out of another production run, changing the product to incorporate all the feedback that we collected over the first year of selling.
How have you changed as inventors?
Amanat: We both have a lot more confidence now. We've been able to find and understand the parent community, and know they find value in our product. Building that network around it has been the major thing that's changed. I think, when we just started, it was an idea that we were entering for competitions and not something that was out there and existed in the world. And that's been the major change.
“As a young designer, the first step you can do is put your idea out there. The James Dyson Award is such an amazing platform to do that.”
If you were to give one piece of advice to someone who was entering the James Dyson Award this year, what would it be?
Amanat: I would say to think really, really big with your ideas. The Award is looking for solutions that are tackling big problems in the world. And so present your application in that way too. Don’t present it as a small, niche problem. Also, just going through the process of applying, in general, for any designer is a valuable experience.
Shubham: I’d say don’t be afraid to submit too! If you think you have a good idea, do not be afraid to apply. There are so many ways of making your idea real and making it become a reality. As a young designer, the first step you can do is put your idea out there. The James Dyson Award is such an amazing platform to do that.
...And what’s your advice for a young designer who is ensure whether their idea is worth pursuing?
Shubham: Fail. And fail fast. I don't think there is anything wrong in calling it quits for an idea if you don't think it's working. If it isn't working, try as hard as you can, make as many prototypes as you can. But if it's not the right fit for your user, I don't think there is any shame in calling it quits and you’ve discovered what doesn’t work. But also, launch ideas that aren’t perfect. And then iterate and develop from there for future launches.
Amanat: We got that push into going with our invention because we were recognised by the James Dyson Award and the UNICEF Award. I’d say getting external validation from your users, or some type of institution, will help you to pursue your invention too.
What are your next steps with SoaPen?
Amanat: With both of us being product designers, we're always excited to expand the product basket. Whether it's expanding to more colours, or other categories of products, I think we tend to always focus on that being the answer to what's next. But also reaching more parents and increasing our impact. Even on the social giving impact side, we've had a lot of interesting work that we've been able to do, and good learning from seeing the product in different use case scenarios in different parts of the world. So, reaching more parents and expanding our product portfolio are key next goals for us.
The 2021 James Dyson Award is now open for entries. Find out more about how to enter here.