Cleana is a Boston University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology company that created an innovative restroom product – a self-lifting toilet seat. It was founded by Boston University students Kevin Tang, chief executive officer, and Andy Chang, chief financial officer, back in 2019.
Since its conception, the company has expanded into a team of four full-time members consisting of both BU and MIT students. Cleana is currently at its beta stage but will be testing with around 30 different partners around the United States sometime before June.
Tang, a senior in Questrom School of Business, said despite being in one of the best colleges and wealthiest cities in the U.S., “most of the school bathrooms are absolutely horrendous.”
As a college student, Tang had numerous encounters with unhygienic school bathrooms. One experience in particular he recalled was within the College of Arts of Sciences. “I ended up looking at four out of the six of them and they were horrendous beyond repair,” he said.
“It felt like this really strange juxtaposition between all this technology, innovation, wealth and then not being able to find the solution for this one particularly gross problem,” Tang said.
Similarly, Chang, a 2021 BU graduate from Questrom and CAS, who had lived in China, Hong Kong and Japan prior to the U.S., noticed that public bathrooms in these cities were getting more “electronic driven.”
After conducting a survey with 1,500 respondents to identify concerns pertaining to public bathrooms, Tang and Chang found that what most people (81%) were worried about was dirty toilet seats.
A further 31% said they would not return to a business after having used a dirty seat.
“It was a mess creation issue and not a cleaning issue,” said Tang.
The survey also found that 75% of men reported they did not lift the toilet seat before urinating.
Tang realized that the problem was not with the current solutions, but “the frequency of messes is too much and dealing with it in these traditional ways is just too expensive.”
Trying to create a user-friendly product for their customers was a long and difficult process for the Cleana team. However, they were finally able to come up with a solution — a self-lifting toilet seat.
The toilet seat, which automatically lifts and lowers on its own, includes an antimicrobial handle and a patented time-delay mechanism which resets after usage, according to Cleana’s website.
Greg Blonder, professor of mechanical engineering at BU and an advisor for Cleana, said Cleana was trying to create a “purely mechanical solution” to avoid the “nightmare of batteries, which have to be charged and maintained.”
He also said what inspired him to continue working with the Cleana team was their continuous improvement.
“They’ve been extraordinarily active at testing their idea, and also lining up beta customers,” Blonder said.
Another challenge that Cleana experienced initially was funding. Chang recalls contacting thousands of people and being faced with rejection.
However, this made the whole process more gratifying for Chang, especially when they were finally able to find people to invest.
Eric Peabody, formerly the vice president and general manager of Staples Facility Solutions, and current investor and advisor of Cleana, said he was initially a little skeptical when he learned that several of the directors of Cleana were still undergraduates. But this perspective changed after he met Tang, Chang and the rest of the Cleana team.
“They had a great idea for a problem that needed solving,” he said. “It was very easy to overcome the hesitancy. They are really impressive young guys.”
In the face of these challenges, Tang and Chang were able to stay motivated by reminding themselves that they were trying to solve an important issue.
“We just kept seeing the problem,” said Tang. “This is not one of those issues where you’re serving a very niche group and they’re disconnected.”
Tang hopes that in the future, living with an unhygienic toilet system will only be a “weird, archaic thought.” He also hopes that, in the coming years, Cleana will become “a standard for toilet seats” found in every bathroom.
“At the end of the day, what we are suggesting is an incredibly simple and elegant solution to a problem,” Tang said.