Big Idea

Waterless Magic

Clensta’s waterless products for personal hygiene could be a game-changer for the healthcare industry and defence forces

Vishal koul

The next big war, experts believe, will be fought over water. While that is a big enough concern, conserving water was not the primary objective for Dr Puneet Gupta when he started his company in 2016. Clensta International, which began as a by-product of Gupta’s biotechnology endeavours, today produces waterless products for personal health and hygiene.

Clensta introduced its first product, a waterless body wash, in August 2017, and now has more in the offing. The prospect of waterless bath, as odd as it sounds, might raise quite a few eyebrows, but ask a soldier posted in Siachen or a patient in a government hospital, and you’ll know the difficulties in maintaining personal hygiene in places that we generally do not find ourselves in. 

According to Clensta’s market research team, India alone is a Rs.50 billion market for waterless personal hygiene products, lying completely untapped with no existing players in the segment. Nilaya Varma, partner, government lead at KPMG India, feels it is difficult to put a number here. He explains, “It is not a typical product category, but a product created for a need. Therefore, if you are able to communicate and change behaviours, then yes, it could be a Rs.50 billion industry.” He believes in the product’s potential, especially if it manages to extend its target segments beyond defence and hospital — for travellers and natural calamity situations. “Behavioural change is the most significant thing here,” he adds.

Replacing essentials

Today, Clensta’s client base includes the Indian defence and paramilitary forces, and leading hospitals such as Apollo, Batra and Medanta. “You and I wouldn’t need this product on a daily basis, not for now at least. But, we discovered that in places such as Siachen, soldiers could not take bath for 90 days straight,” says Gupta. This prompted Gupta and his team to develop a waterless substitute for bath. After three years of research, they incorporated Clensta in 2016 and launched their first product in August 2017 — a 100 ml bottle that can replace five baths. “You just need to spray it on your body, massage and towel dry yourself, and you are done,” says Gupta. “When you use a regular soap, the molecules of dirt, grease, oil and odour attach themselves to the soap molecules which is then physically removed using water. Our product absorbs the molecules and then you can use a tissue or towel to wipe it all out.”

Praveen Tripathi, psychiatrist and director at Noida-based multi-speciality clinic, The Renowa Care, views Clensta’s product as a game-changer. “It is life-changing for patients with poor mobility. With increasing lifespan comes the increasing burden of chronic illnesses and disabilities, so maintaining basic hygiene is a real challenge,” he says.

An engineering graduate and IIM Calcutta alumnus, Gupta worked with a few multinational companies, before joining a start-up working in the defence sector. It was here that he came to know of their difficulties in maintaining personal hygiene, when in difficult terrains. Carrying water in huge tankers presented logistical and safety threats. The soldiers in areas like Siachen would melt the ice on the ground and dip sponges in them to clean themselves. As he dug deeper into the problem, he found out that waterless hygiene solutions could be useful in hospitals, for adventure enthusiasts and even space travellers.

Presently, wet wipes and sponging are the only available alternatives across the globe, but that doesn’t help remove bacterial growth from the body. More importantly, poor hygiene and lack of access to clean water leads to a lot of deaths across the world, according to Gupta.

Varma adds perspective to this. “Skin disease is a function of many things including contaminated water and air, and India is not the best country in these spheres. Waterless products might help, but it’s not entirely correct to say that they are going to solve the problem. People have to be convinced that it is safe and effective. Repeated usage might then bring about a change in general behaviour.”

Saving Water

Apart from the poor state of personal hygiene in the country, Gupta also found that around 20% of the water goes directly to the drain during a bath. That gave him a purpose to start Clensta.

Setting up their research facility in IIT Delhi, Gupta and his team began their experiments to develop a product that gives the same experience of a bath without any side effects, is not cumbersome to use and is suitable for any kind of environment. Not surprisingly, he encountered multiple skeptics who wondered how something could ever replace the experience of a bath, without water. Some even compared it with dry shampoos.

Brushing all that aside, the Clensta team launched their first product in 2017. “Our 100 ml bottle saves 350 litres of water,” says Gupta. Although the product was launched with the intention of improving the hygiene index of the world, eventually it will help conserve water too. With the Indian navy, army, paramilitary forces and several hospitals in its client list, the company claims to be in talks with NASA to adapt the product according to the needs of space travellers. It is also in discussions with Portea and Decathlon, and is about to partner with a chain of hotels in South Africa. 

While still exploring the right channel for its retail business, Clensta follows a distributor model for its B2B business. Priced at Rs.499 per bottle, Clensta has supplied about 100,000 bottles to its clients so far. “We have launched 100 ml bottles only, but they can be customised. For instance, we were asked if we could supply a set of individual packs for soldiers in a submarine to use a sachet per day. We can accommodate such demands,” says Gupta.

In a year’s time, Clensta plans to foray into the retail space through partnerships with pharmacies and e-commerce portals. 

It currently outsources its manufacturing, but the company is in talks to acquire a manufacturing unit to start producing in bulk, alongside setting up its research unit outside the IIT Delhi campus. Apart from the facility in IIT, it has an office in the US embassy in Delhi, and a subsidiary in the Netherlands after being admitted to an accelerator programme by the World Startup Factory. Clensta, which ships products to Nepal and South Africa, is exploring potential partnerships in Poland and Russia, as part of its global expansion plans. He says, “We use ingredients accepted globally, so that we don’t have to change every time we move to a new market.”

Growth fuel

In December 2017, Clensta raised $500,000 from investors in India, the US and the Netherlands in its pre-Series A round of funding. The company is currently looking at raising its Series A round of funds for a manufacturing facility.

Sanjeev Jain, an IIT Delhi alumnus and investor at Clensta, remembers how he was apprehensive about the product initially. “We were not sure how well this can work, but they have done detailed research on the target market, which includes defence and paramilitary forces, hospitals and home healthcare, which accounts for nearly Rs.50 billion in India alone. That doesn’t even include you and me,” he says. 

Having rolled out its first product, Clensta is now working on its next product — waterless toothpastes — the prototype for which is ready. This was another idea that originated from conversations with soldiers. If they brushed, they had to spit, and this would leave tracks for the enemies. “Water being carried in large tankers would also invite the attention of militants,” says Gupta, whose 20-member team is also working on their bathing product to make it mosquito-repellent.

While the existing product is FDA-approved, he estimates that it could take about six months for the regulatory procedures to start for its yet-to-be launched products such as waterless toothpastes and the mosquito repellent version of its waterless body wash. “We would be launching all those by the next financial year,” Gupta says, who sees Clensta as a healthcare company “working to create innovative medical solutions accessible to anyone, anytime and anywhere”. He also hopes to create markets for these products and services.

Staying Ahead

Even as Clensta scales up, competition may become a concern soon. There is another South African company, DryBath, making similar products, but Jain points out that their products are not available in India, and are costlier than Clensta’s, at $29.4 for a 250 ml bottle. Given the research and regulatory procedures involved, Gupta states that the entry barrier is high for future competitors. 

KPMG’s Varma offers another possible explanation, “Innovation tends to happen in small setups, where someone notices a need and comes up with a product. In a large organisation, the first thought would be if the product could cannibalise its existing products.” He adds, “But as the demand goes up and application areas increase for these products, large firms will jump in. They could even buy out these organisations.” 

Clensta has now started receiving repeat orders from their hospital clients, and is expecting to clock revenue of around $5 million by the end of FY20. He expects a 1:2 ratio between B2B (defence and armed forces, hospitals, home health care, adventure sports) and B2C (e-commerce platforms and retail outlets) revenues.

Technopak’s Arvind Singhal feels, Clensta would invariably have the early-mover advantage. “It is a good idea to penetrate institutional customers such as the Indian army. If these clients are satisfied and the product is cost effective, they may not look for a change in vendor,” he says. Nevertheless, he also notes that the moment the market expands, it will attract other players.

Jain too is optimistic about the scalability of these products. “Globally, people are becoming more conscious about water conservation. The day is not far when waterless bathing products will become an everyday utility,” he says.

Clensta, which holds six patents in 108 countries, is now also working on products that would help clean clothes without washing them in water. Gupta sees all their products being available to all consumers five years down the line. “We want to be the ‘Apple’ of hygiene tech,” he sums up.