Escalators — used by millions of people each day at airports, train stations and department stores around the world — are truly conveyor belts for germs. Still, it’s not a good idea to ignore their handrails, and that is exactly what led Katharina Obladen and Tanja Nickel to develop a disinfectant for them. The two came up with the idea of using ultraviolet light rather than chemicals to kill bacteria, fungi and viruses and designed a lightbox to do just that.
Obladen said she can’t say with certainty how effective UV light is against the new COVID-19 coronavirus, noting that labs are too overwhelmed to check that right now, but said “in general it is very effective.”
Nickel and Obladen were students when the H1N1 swine flu was in full swing in 2010, and they found themselves suddenly confronted with the issue of hygiene in public spaces. When they first came up with the idea, Nickel and Obladen turned to a friend who happened to be an engineer. He helped them build a prototype, and in 2016 they won an ideas competition with it and founded the Cologne-based company UVIS (UV-Innovative Solutions).
Katharina Obladen (left) and Tanja Nickel show off their UV lightbox that disinfects escalator handrails
Now UVIS sells its patented product across Europe and as far away as Australia. Escalator manufacturers directly install them in new models, and UVIS says its system can also be easily retrofitted onto existing models.
This year, UVIS exceeded its projected annual earnings within the first few months of the year.
“Demand in Asia has gone up significantly,” Obladen said. “Our first shipment to Singapore will be going out soon.”
Their warehouses are out of stock, and Obladen said they have had to hire a number of temporary workers because their five full-time employees can’t keep up with the orders.
“We’ve received a lot of support from family and friends. Those who are in college have more time for us now that classes have been canceled,” said Obladen.
Special coating for shopping carts
As luck would have it, the hygiene experts at UVIS also picked up another antimicrobial product at the beginning of the year, and to which they have the exclusive distribution rights. The product, a disinfectant coating designed for hard to reach areas and delicate surfaces, is made by a German company and is “selling like hotcakes.”
The women point out that a Cologne supermarket is already using the coating on the handles of its shopping carts and credit card readers. The coating, made from a solution of water and titanium dioxide, is known to kill almost all bacteria, and Obladen says it is currently being tested against COVID-19. The coating works on glass, metal and plastic, but must be applied by a trained professional.
“It is really in demand, especially here in Germany, and our coating crew has a very long to-do list. The crisis has been very positive for our business. No one was thinking about hygiene before it hit,” Obladen said.
Education apps and games
Other German businesses are also getting an unexpected boost. Companies that help kids learn at home — or at least keep them entertained while schools are closed — are also seeing a jump in business. Learning apps like Skills4School and Sharezone have seen their numbers of visitors skyrocket of late.
“Until recently, we used to get about 300 to 500 users a day — but numbers have gone up five times that since last week,” Sharezone’s Nils Reichardt told the German online magazine Gründerszene.
Reichardt said he expects those numbers to keep going up the longer kids are out of school, in part because schools themselves are only just now starting to think about online educational tools.
Quarantine Kids, a brand new platform for game ideas, has picked up several thousand new subscriptions in a matter of days. Sisters Ruth and Anne Löwenstein turned their hobby into a business after their original Ideenpost (idea post) went viral. The two now post new cutout sheets and game instructions each day for parents to download for their young children.
But it’s not all just child’s play. Adults also need the right equipment to run an efficient home office, so startups like Uniki and Filestage are selling them infrastructure and apps that enable them to work remotely on collaborative projects. The crisis has also made clear just how flexible our work life can be, and employees aren’t likely to want to give that up any time soon.
Apps may help maintain the proper social distance by providing assistance with digital work, learning, or health and fitness, but there are also other more down-to-earth products that are seeing brisk sales at the moment. One, in particular, is the hand-operated bidet HappyPo, or Happy Bum.
“We increased profits sevenfold,” founder Oliver Elsoud told Gründerszene in mid-March. “Our online sales are going through the roof.”
Elsoud said drug stores are also buying more of his product because it helps customers save toilet paper — another product that is in extremely high demand these days.