Students persevere after unsuccessful pitch at MEDA competition, win larger prize
When a group of Waterloo university students presented their business idea at the MEDAx pitch competition last fall, they were surprised and disappointed not to win the $5,000 prize.
SheCycle aims to improve the health of Ugandan women with an antimicrobial, reusable sanitary pad.
They may have got something more important than money from the MEDAx experience. They learned the value of resilience.
Encouraged by the response they received from observers at that pitch event, they tried again and landed a bigger prize. In June, they won $30,000 at the 2019 World’s Challenge Challenge held at Western University in London, ON.
“Something we learned from MEDAx is, you have to just keep trying, because sometimes you won’t win, even if your idea is good,” says Anna Kuepfer, a member of SheCycle.
SheCycle wants to improve Ugandan women’s menstrual health. Only 30 per cent of Ugandan women use menstrual hygiene products. The majority use potentially dangerous options such as rags, dried leaves, mattress foam or newspaper to fashion pads or tampons.
Tetanus, kidney and urinary tract infections result from poor menstrual hygiene. This leads to school absenteeism, lower education, earlier pregnancy and other barriers to breaking the cycle of poverty. Across Africa, one in 10 girls skip school due to periods. Water-based infections caused by bacteria in improperly dried menstrual pads are a major contributor to this problem.
There are organizations that distribute reusable pads to women. But these still foster bacterial growth as the pads need to be dried outside in full UV light in order to be safe.
Cultural stigma means that 98 per cent of pads are dried improperly, inside. Unfortunately, women who use those pads are twice as likely to get infections as those who use disposables.
SheCycle’s solution to the problem is to coat reusable menstrual pads with an anti-microbial coating. The coating kills 99 per cent of bacteria, including E. coli, which is known to cause over 90 per cent of all urinary tract infections. Treatment is effective for over a year.
The team that took part in the MEDAx pitch competition in Indianapolis in November 2018 had six members, including two men.
Three women from that group, all full-time undergraduate students, make up the current She Cycle group: Amanda Loewen, Kuepfer and Leah Wouda.
Loewen, a Wilfrid Laurier University business student, acts as executive director.
Kuepfer is in her final year of health studies at University of Waterloo. She works as SheCycle’s director of global innovation, developing international and local relationships and working on a prototype pad. “I’m the one who’s doing the sewing.”
Wouda, a fourth-year UW international development student, is in charge of social media engagement. She also fields inquiries and writes grant applications.
They were recently accepted into Concept Science (formerly Velocity Science). Concept is a free pre-incubator program at the University of Waterloo.
Concept Science provides coaching, grant funding, access to lab space and materials to UW students who have a business idea.
Being able to use lab equipment is crucial for SheCycle. The group is hoping to find a fourth member to take the lead on nanotech technology development.
“We have an idea, and it’s a proven technology, but the actual development (of an antimicrobial coating for a reusable cotton menstrual pad) is a little outside of our realm of expertise,” Kuepfer said.
They need to decide the amount of chemicals to use, how to bond them to the cotton, and make sure it stays bonded.
“We have a general idea of what chemicals we want to use, but we have to test it.”
They hope to interest fourth-year engineering students in doing their prototyping tests as a for-credit design project. A team could start its work in January 2020 and work on the project until April 2021.
SheCycle hopes that a prototype and marketable product will be ready earlier than that.
The antimicrobial pad technology has been developed before. But SheCycle wants to refine it so it is sustainable and appropriate to the local Ugandan context.
SheCycle hopes to source local cotton in Africa and have the pads produced there. Doing so would benefit women entrepreneurs. Organizations supplying pads in that region are importing cotton, even though cotton is grown in Uganda.
There are many milestones for SheCycle to reach before a product can be launched.
The money they won in the World’s Challenge competition will be used for purchasing materials, product development and develop- ing a curriculum around menstrual hygiene. “Honestly it’s going to be gone so fast,” Kuepfer said.
SheCycles’ business model will be to have women vendors sell menstrual pads in local markets. Their goal is to manufacture pads for 53 cents each and have vendors sell them for 75 cents. Their potential initial audience is 15 million Ugandan women.
“There’s a really widespread market for this. In most developing nations, this (menstrual health) is an issue because of various factors.”
Civil war, the HIV epidemic and other factors lead to a lack of knowledge transmission around proper sanitary practices.
Kuepfer spent several months in Uganda in the fall of 2017 and hopes to return as the project develops. “Ideally, all three of us would go.”
Technology has allowed her to keep in touch with the Ugandan community where she taught school and let them know about SheCycle’s progress. “There’s a lot of conversation that can happen without physically being there.”
Once the SheCycle product is up and running, the effort will be self- sufficient, Wouda said.
Many granting agencies have large amounts of money directed towards child, maternal and women’s health, said Kuepfer.
She plans to study nursing with a view to a job in systems-based health care.
“As we continue to develop, we could be a candidate for some large grants, considering that the work we do nails six of the (United Nations Sustainable Development Goals) SDGs.”
SheCycle hopes to roll out its product through a gradual launch with one or two Ugandan communities. “A lot of initiatives have failed in the past because they haven’t been involved enough in the communities throughout the development process,” she said.
Wouda doesn’t expect SheCycle to ever be a money-making machine for the team. She is content to view SheCycle as a passion project to work at while pursuing a career in the non-profit sector.
Kuepfer is also comfortable with not knowing whether SheCycle will develop into a full-time pursuit for the team. “Our careers aren’t on hold, just because we have a business,” she said.
The SheCycle team isn’t sure whether their venture will eventually become a for-profit, a social enterprise with profits plowed back into the company or a charity.
“We’re not an aid organization,” Kuepfer said. “We hope to work ourselves out of existence.”