Hand on your heart, dear reader: how thorough are you when you wash your hands? Do you take 20-30 seconds to do it? By the way, that’s as long as it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice … And do you use enough soap? Do you really clean your whole hands? Do you dry your hands properly afterwards? Not to mention actually sanitizing them. I admit it, I thought I was thorough, but I feel caught out. It seems that I, too, am carelessly spreading germs. Although I will change.
But what’s worse is the spread of germs throughout hospitals, because that’s where germs find people whose immune systems are already weakened. And that can have devastating consequences. We spoke with Robert Hellmundt, who founded the Heyfair start-up together with Alexander Döpel. The young entrepreneurs are launching a disinfectant onto the market which allows users to directly see if they rub it into their hands sufficiently or not. And the good thing about it? The dye disappears after drying your hands.
How did you come up with the idea of setting up Heyfair?
At a trade fair we heard about a lack of adequate hand disinfection and the serious consequences of that for society. There are 8.9 million hospital-acquired infections every year in Europe alone which lead to enormous costs for the healthcare system. Above all, this causes a great amount of suffering for the patients affected.
We quickly realized that the main cause was, unfortunately, human error. Too often, hands are not properly disinfected or not disinfected at all during crucial moments. That’s why we started thinking about how we could help people follow hygiene guidelines more easily. Our solution is simply to show what parts are clean and what aren’t.
What makes Heyfair’s product so special compared to other products?
We have developed a disinfectant that dyes hands an intense color when it is used, but then disappears after the product has been dried off. When I use it, I can tell then and there from the color of the dye if I’m sanitizing my hands effectively. The disinfectant will not work on parts of the skin that aren’t clearly highlighted by the dye. This might be because there is not enough of it on there or nothing has been applied to that area.
The dye helps me enormously when it comes to the actual act of disinfecting my hands. Yet the product also has a powerful psychological component. As others can see if and how well I am sanitizing my hands too. This really increases motivation to do things properly. The spread of germs happens much less frequently this way, so fewer people are infected with potentially dangerous pathogens.
What obstacles have you had to overcome and was there a moment when you wanted to give up?
The beginning was especially difficult. We started with a radical idea in a field outside our own area of expertise and did not know if it was really good or technologically feasible. So we had to invest a lot of time and money at considerable personal risk in order to get things done more effectively. All the while under the constant uncertainty of whether our efforts would ever pay off. I had never really considered the possibility of just giving up. Because despite the many setbacks, worries and sleepless nights, it was always progressing. I still wonder today where this journey will take us. Aside from all of that, we have become more familiar with the subject and we know that our idea is not just good, but is also achievable.
Tell our readers what you are particularly proud of …
We have had several wonderful experiences in our company which I look back on with great pleasure. The moment, for example, when we first tried out the first working prototype on our hands in our improvised laboratory. After three years of hard work and many unsuccessful attempts, we were finally able to see what had previously only existed in our imagination. That was a very special moment for me. Another nice thing: the moment when trial customers, who for a long time were initially very skeptical and quite dissatisfied, become more and more enthusiastic about the product as a result of the constant improvements. At a certain point we heard: “Now it’s really good! Can I keep it?”
Yet I am especially proud of the company itself. We are getting better and learning more every day. What we can do this week is always more than what we did last week. This way we are constantly improving conditions so that we can accomplish even more at Heyfair.
What can we expect from you in the coming years?
In April we entered the training market sector with SteriCoach for the first time and we are still striving to make a difference. It is simply unacceptable that so few people know how to disinfect their hands properly. We make all of the important aspects of correct hand disinfection visible with our product. The training can be repeated as often as required. So, there is no reason to let someone go back to work after the training without them showing that they have mastered how to disinfect their hands properly.
In line with our experience with SteriCoach and company structures (which we are continually expanding upon in order to develop, manufacture and market our product), we are currently preparing for the introduction to the market of the right disinfectant for daily usage. This will enable companies with high hygiene requirements to continue to uphold optimal hygiene standards.
Where do you think the company will be in 5 years from now?
We stand by our user-friendly hygiene products being the ultimate tool for the prevention of infection. In our view, as things stand today – thorough basic hygiene within professional areas is still far too complicated and prone to error. We aim to remedy this with cleverly designed products that will always be deemed easy to understand and intuitive in their application. My goal for the next five years is to make our disinfectant, (which shows up as a dye only temporarily), the new gold standard when it comes to hygiene-sensitive areas.
Of course, in the long term, we would like to set the standard everywhere for user-friendly sanitation solutions.
How do you manage to combine your private and professional life?
Not at all right now. Regrettably, my work is all too often at the expense of my wife and two children. I don’t even want to mention my friendships or my extended family. Hobbies are out of the question for now. I am always trying a few things out, although I haven’t yet found a solution that might work better for me over time. This is also due to the fact that my duties and responsibilities are constantly changing. Even delegating tasks often takes up an incredible amount of time. Therefore, it frequently comes down to this: take a deep breath and improvise. As a rule, however, everything is going exactly the way it should: if you just keep going, do your best and from time to time ask for a bit of understanding.
When you think back to the early stages, how does your actual life now as a founder differ from your original ideas?
In actual fact it was never my goal to actively run a business, so I can’t really make that comparison. However, what has always stood in the way of my expectations are the many minor problems and tasks that can take an incredibly long time to deal with. Processes can drag on unbearably for ages. If you don’t pay attention, half of the company is paralyzed which can destroy the team’s motivation. That’s why I always try to keep an eye out for signs of these energy-consuming processes and why I try to motivate my team to do the same. Usually they find a solution together so they can get through all that frustration more quickly, or even manage to cleverly avoid it.
If you had the choice… Would you set up a start-up again? And if so, would you take the same approach and choose the same company format?
Definitely. I also sincerely hope that Heyfair won’t be my last start-up.
However, if I look back, I probably should have chosen an easier subject for the initial phase.
Nevertheless, I have few regrets. As I see it, our approach was the right one, and today I still feel as if the company’s format and the city of Jena still suit me.
Lastly, what tips do you have for other start-ups?
As a start-up you start out with very limited resources, without any defined processes, customers, contacts, cash flow or perhaps even with only a limited knowledge of the sector. Maybe even all of that at once. Therefore, competitors who have already established themselves on the market have a huge advantage. You will only be able to catch up with them by being very fast. You need an excellent team, thousands of good ideas and a corporate culture where these can be expressed and discussed. If everything is as it should be, there’s a spark and the best ideas are accomplished with enthusiasm and passion. As a founder, your most important task is to ensure that this happens on a regular basis.
You and your team will have the opportunity to get this done by ensuring that your company is running efficiently and that your team does the same as well.
Interested in other start-ups? You can read all the episodes from our daily series here.
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