Interview: I Shield is A Company Born Out Of Covid, says co-founder Nitish Sathyanarayanan

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Here is the story of a Bengaluru-based startup that started its journey right in the middle of the pandemic and proved that, even though COVID-19 may have turned our lives upside down, the spirit of making a social impact remains high. It is not just a business but a group of biotechnologists providing modern solutions to modern problems. 

Read and meet Nitish Sathyanarayanan  a Biotechnologist Turned Entrepreneur who is one of the Co-founders of Infection Shield Biotechnologies (I Shield). He has done his Ph.D. in biotech in a very specific domain called biochemistry. During his Ph.D., he was awarded the Prime Minister’s fellowship. He loves traveling and is a biotechnologist by heart.

Tell us something about Infection Shield. And How you ended up choosing this name?

Infection Shield Technologies (IShield) has developed a fabric, using which it has made an affordable self-disinfecting mask that is effective against the Covid-19 virus, according to the startup.

The startup said, Infection Shield, as the name suggests, Is a company that is currently addressing infection control. The company decided to help the common mankind by creating these masks. And they made this six-layered mask made with an indigenously developed ‘tekfabric’. This material binds to a molecule, which ruptures and kills the viruses like Covid-19. 

On the first day of the lab’s experimentation, which was most likely April 2nd or 3rd, 2020, week one of the nationwide lockdown in India. This is how the firm was established, So the way we were born is we’ll be based out of an incubator promoted by the government of India called C-Camp, which is the center for cellular and molecule platform. So it’s a biotech incubator, which is probably one of the largest in the country. What we did as a group of us who were doing other things pre-pandemic, all came together with all being in the biotech field, we wanted to bring our biotech expertise in actually developing solutions that could help people manage or fight the pandemic, said Nitish.

And to the best of their knowledge, they are the first company in India and third or fourth globally to actually take the actual COVID virus and put the mask to the test. He continues We partnered with a beautiful set of Virologists, a great expert set of Virologists out of Trivandrum called Rajiv Gandhi Center for Biotechnology, who had access to these viruses. what they did is they isolated the Sars Cov2 (Covid virus), or the covid virus put on our fabric, and then show that within 15 minutes, you could kill nearly 100% of all the virus, as per a global standard called ISO 18184. So we also benchmarked to global standards. Subsequently, we were able to prove for other viruses like influenza virus or what is called H1N1 and other types of virus called respiratory syncytial virus in a lab in the USA in Florida. 

The story behind the name “I Shield”, It was quite serendipitous. We debated a lot, and then we said, infection shield, right. We’re trying to sort of shield from infection. Infection shield. And then we felt that infection shield. So that’s why the company name was Infection shield biotech. Then we felt that infection shield is a long name to pronounce as a brand in the market. So we just shortened it to “I Sheild, Nitish said.

What is the inspiration behind “Isheild”?

Here is the primary set of inspiration behind I Shield. The biggest inspiration was that it was not a business for us at that point in time. It was more as, we as scientists, what can we develop which can become a mass commodity or a product which will help the common man fight this pandemic. That was our single biggest inspiration, Nitish said. 

He continues, the secondary set of inspiration were to keep pollution in check, because if everybody goes using four or five masks a day, if they were going to change every 4 hours, like how it is prescribed, then imagine the amount of pollution that you’re creating. Already we’re creating pollution because you can’t prevent healthcare workers from not working. But as a country, if a billion people start doing this in a day, you’ll have 4 billion masks or 5 billion masks being thrown off. And reusability was a big thing in Indian culture, reusability is a big plus point. And using disposable masks was also leading to an environmental hazard. 

Why should I opt for an “iShield mask” over other brands?

An I Shield mask has two primary features. One common feature is that it has been tested by SITRA (South Indian Textile Research Association), which is an authorized body by the government to be doing this testing and then not approving, but benchmarking the product. So our masks have several features. Whether it is particulate filtration, there are five parameters for a mask. One is particulate filtration efficiency, bacterial filtration efficiency, breathability; because you should also be able to breathe through. Otherwise, you’ll have lots of pressure on your lungs. And then fluid resistance. And then the fourth one is inflammability. So these are the five parameters that constitute a mask, which can be either used or not used from a global standard point of view, said Nitish.

The single biggest difference is that I Shield masks are self-sanitizing. For a surgical mask, 4 hours is the time period, and for an N 95 mask, 12 hours is the time period. We have now cut that whole thing by primarily doing this technology, what we call, retentive antimicrobial technology where the molecules can be retained on the surface. And Our masks are self-sanitizing. So these are the primary features of an I Shield mask. 

What were the initial days like? What were the most difficult moments the company faced?

Nitish said it took us some time to even get approvals. And to be fair, because the government or agencies were fighting their own battles.

There was no courier. So we had to get special permission on the specific route; where every week two of our drivers would drive down to Trivandrum for about six or seven times because we don’t know which combination is going to work. So we would do the process here, do initial testing, and then our drivers would take this all the way to Trivandrum, deliver it to the Lab, and come back. 

We were born on day one of the Pandemic. The initial days were all just logistical nightmares. Nobody knew what was happening. Even we didn’t know what was happening. We couldn’t even step out. 

The first hurdle was actually developing the product itself because we were just starting out. The next biggest challenge for the company was now how do you scale it when all of the supply chain and logistics was hampered? How do you find the suppliers? How do you find manufacturers who could still do all of this and then bring those goods from several parts of the country to a common location where they manufacture this and then take the mask to the public? I will take a great amount of pride in saying that within a short period of time of three months, we were able to go from the first day of Lab to a commercial launch of our first batches of masks. By the 1st of July, our products were trading on the shelf. 

All of this was very well facilitated in spite of such chaos. Because we’ve got fantastic support from the government, both here and centrally, also from the Department of Biotechnology and more importantly, Professor K. VijayRaghavan’s office.

We also got a brilliant amount of support from Amazon. In fact, they said we will help you promote you on our platform because this is a unique solution 100% made in India. We have got an incredible amount of support from everyone. 

How does the business model work? What are some unique business strategies you’ve developed?

Nitish said So we started with a mask. And then slowly the competition got bigger. They were also global players. So as a company, we had to prevent it. And we are not a distribution company. You can’t become a distribution or marketing or you can’t build a brand overnight. 

With companies’ unique business strategy which was their technology. The specific technology that they built was termed as a retentive anti-microbial technology. While the creation of masks was done, the next biggest business model was how do you now prevent other forms of infection? So the next set of products that we developed are all liquid-based disinfectants, again using the central retentive disinfection strategy. 

What products the company has made so far and What are the future plans of the company? 

In our next set of products, we made a hand sanitizer that stays on your hands for up to 4 hours. This has been tested in a hospital setup clinically, where we have gone and run informal trials. 

of course, where We have also done clinical studies, where we have chosen hospital health care workers, nurses, doctors, where they would use a regular alcohol sanitizer, which evaporates in five to ten minutes, which means after that if you touch anything, you still are prone to taking the infection. Where if you use our product, you could go on to do any of your work, but the molecule stays bound on your hands for up to 4 hours. We call them invisible gloves, Nitish stated. 

He continues, And then we also made another product which is again for addressing surfaces where people were using common alcohol or other chemical bases, which would evaporate within a few minutes. So we again ran trials within hospitals where we would spray our molecule, and then the molecule would remain bound there for 72 hours, which means you can protect your surfaces. Most common touch surfaces for 72 hours! 

That is the next range of technologies that we bought. Today, we’re actually expanding all the way to medical technology, or what people call MedTech devices. Today we’re making all sorts of biomaterials, which generally have infection problems in a hospital, in a medical community, pandemic might go away in six months or a year but hospital-associated infections are a big issue and our company is going to address that, Nitish said.

Our next goal is to address hospital infections. This is a global problem, not a problem alone in India. So we have global ambitions, where our biggest strength is developing technology. So more increasingly, what we’re doing is we’re developing technology and then partnering with other existing large players to make a global impact. So that’s as what as a company, we will be in the next three or four years. 

Any message for future entrepreneurs?

Nitish said that we need to be one step ahead of these calamities every time. Otherwise, we cannot have such a global economic meltdown every five years. And, every ten years this has been happening on a small scale. But this has been a global problem at this point in time.

What this pandemic has done is open everybody’s eyes. And to especially people within this domain. I think everybody can become a solution provider, technology provider.

And India being a large talent pool, especially we’ve so far been a service economy. I think I am highly confident, especially for my industry, the biotech industry, that the next decade is going to be a knowledge economy. 

And I’ve been very closely within that ecosystem. I can confidently say that is going to be the case for the next decade. We will make a lot of biotech technologies here in India which will get exported to the world, not just for business opportunities, but also to impact life. I think the next decade will belong to India for the knowledge economy. 

So this has been the journey of Infection Shield so far. And these were the excerpts from our conversation with Nitish Sathyanarayanan, the Co-Founder of Infection Shield Biotechnologies (IShield)

Stay hooked with us to see the full interview Video.

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