Sharing her engineering work with the world outside the lab has motivated Birgitt Boschitsch ’13, the co-founder and CEO of coatings startup spotLESS Materials, ever since she was a student at Princeton.
As a sophomore studying mechanical and aerospace engineering, Boschitsch remembers being drawn to the lab of Professor Alexander “Lex” Smits. At the time, his lab was building a robot that mimicked the movements of manta rays — the “manta bot” — to better understand how rays and other fish swim and thereby improve underwater vehicles.
Smits put Boschitsch to work, along with a graduate student mentor, studying how pairs of fish are able to swim more efficiently when trailing each other. And, perhaps more importantly, he challenged Boschitsch to present her research to others, including to the American Physical Society’s Division of Fluid Dynamics.
“Being given that opportunity to transition from ‘I did some research and learned from someone’ to now ‘I’m presenting this to an audience of experts’ showed I was capable of a lot more than I thought I was,” recalls Boschitsch. “It was really exciting to present that out beyond the lab.”
When Boschitsch opted to pursue a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering after graduating from Princeton, she found a lab working on technology that was similarly inspired by nature and a professor whose storytelling ability caught her attention.
During a presentation to persuade graduate students to join his lab, Boschitsch learned from Penn State professor Tak-Sing Wong that carnivorous pitcher plants trap their insect prey with the help of a slippery coating on the sides of their pitcher-like walls. He could explain this natural phenomenon down to the microscopic level. Boschitsch was hooked and soon joined Wong’s research team.
The Wong lab realized that their nature-inspired coating technology could be modified to address a challenge from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — that of reinventing the toilet. An estimated 4 billion people in the world don’t have access to safe sanitation, and more than 500 million people defecate in the open, says Boschitsch. Many of those regions are also facing a water crisis. A toilet that is able to repel human waste while consuming minimal water by employing the Wong lab’s “LESS” (liquid entrenched smooth surface) technology would help solve this problem.
“We put so much research and so much effort and so much brain power into something that’s innovative,” recalls Boschitsch. “I wanted to see this technology leave the lab and do something useful.”
Around the same time, Boschitsch watched with admiration as her husband, John Stogin ’11, formed and managed his own software startup despite not having any experience in business.
“Watching him do that really showed me that all you have to do is care about a problem and want to solve it,” she says. “That’s all you need. Everything else you can figure out.”
The Wong lab’s technology, she decided, ought to be commercialized. And who better to do it than the lab’s own members?
“We know this technology,” Boschitsch says. “Why would we give it to someone else to do that?”
As she had done before at Princeton, Boschitsch started sharing her lab’s research with the outside world. One presentation led to a $50,000 grant to begin exploring commercializing the LESS technology. And on the strength of a later pitch, Boschitsch and her labmates won another $50,000 to start their own company. They called it spotLESS Materials.
At the end of 2019, spotLESS Materials introduced its first product, a spray-on toilet coating that keeps toilets cleaner for longer. In preparation for the launch, Boschitsch had bought 150 bottles from a local plastic bottle distributor as well as corresponding labels that she planned to apply manually. But Boschitsch had timed the product’s launch to coincide with World Toilet Day and didn’t anticipate the overwhelming demand for spotLESS’s product that subsequent media attention would provide.
“That week, we were all the product fulfillment team,” says Boschitsch, who still remembers her fingers caked in glue from the many labels she had to apply.
The company later introduced a windshield coating product that Boschitsch says makes scraping ice off her own car in the winter much easier. And this summer, spotLESS revamped its toilet coating product, which now features a larger and improved bottle that can be sprayed upside down. In the future, Boschitsch says she imagines spotLESS finding industrial partners, but for now the company is focused on selling directly to consumers.
Boschitsch was named to the Forbes list of 30 Under 30 in Science for 2020.