Lucy Hope is the development director at Virustatic® and Virustatic SHIELD®. A Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) alumna, Lucy is passionate about sustainability and tech for good, she has seen Virustatic’s growth from a disruptive innovation start-up into a purpose-led award-winning technology business.
Can you tell us a little about your background and the company?
Of course. Virustatic is a family business, and I am the development and sustainability director. We have been developing natural and environmentally benign antimicrobial and antiviral coatings for textiles and other surfaces and we developed a game-changing, Innovation Award-winning antiviral face covering made from material that can trap viruses and bacteria, called the Virustatic SHIELD®
How did the idea come to you for the company?
It is part of our family history lore that my great-grandfather died in the 1918-1919 Spanish flu pandemic. When there was the first SARS epidemic in 2003, my dad, our founder and technical director, started questioning why there was not a better, more effective face mask product on the market other than plastic ‘barrier’ type technologies, that could go some way to protecting people from viruses such as flu and coronavirus. So, he set about designing and developing something better. A decade of research later, we launched the Virustatic SHIELD® in March 2020, our first product to market with our patented technology. Now we are looking at ways this coating can make a real difference in other industries that are reliant on unnecessarily toxic chemicals and disinfectants.
How did you achieve awareness?
As the story goes, it takes 10 years to be an overnight success. Awareness of our product was just about timing. We had spent over a decade developing a game-changing breakthrough innovation to protect people from viral pandemics… and then there was a pandemic. We were talking about airborne viruses and pandemic preparedness and trying to speak to the government about readiness and getting very little interest or response. As COVID-19 hit, it quickly became on everyone’s radar and our niche suddenly became part of everyone’s lexicon.
How have you been able to gain funding and grow?
In the early days of Virustatic, my dad sold our family home to fund the company and our research – which I realise is quite extreme! More recently, we have had government support through innovation grants, such as through Innovate UK and the National Biofilms Innovation Centre (NBIC), which have been invaluable. We also had a hugely successful product launch for the Virustatic SHIELD® and so we reinvested these profits into further research and new product development.
What are the key successes?
The successes for me are those small pinch-me moments where someone else recognises what you’ve been working away at. It was a proud moment when Science and Industry Museum Trust acquisitioned the Virustatic SHIELD® and Virustatic technology for its COVID-19 archive; it’s amazing to think it might be used in a museum exhibition in 100 years’ time! A personal career highlight was receiving an invitation to give a talk at the Royal Society about sustainable fashion. Finally, working day in and day out with my Dad doing good things in the world is an unparalleled privilege and I consider it a success that we get to work together – not to say we don’t have our moments!
What were/are the challenges and how have you overcome these?
Truly innovative products are often held back from the market because of outdated regulations that aren’t adaptive enough to keep up with good changes that are being made. In our case, we had designed a fantastic new face mask product, but the regulations were inflexible and, quite literally, last century, insofar as they ultimately end up promoting the use of single-use plastic face masks.
It is very difficult to set better industry standards and lobby for legislation that is more supportive of sustainable new technologies when there are representatives from all the biggest and most polluting companies on the regulatory advisory boards and panels and at policy consultations. These are people and businesses that absolutely want to maintain the status quo and thus the profits of the businesses they are invested in, regardless of how pollutive they are.
We haven’t yet overcome that challenge yet but, along with the work of other innovative and sustainable businesses, Universities and journalists that feel the same way, we just keep going!
What are your plans now/for the future?
We are just coming to the end of a fantastic partnership with The Business of Fashion, Textiles and Technology (BFTT), which was a five-year project, focussing on delivering sustainable innovation within the entire fashion and textile supply chain. I’m passionate about taking the research and learning from that project and getting the message out there to reduce the use of completely unnecessary chemicals in the apparel industry that is damaging our soils and waters and harming biodiversity. Of course, part of that will be promoting the benefits of Virustatic® textile technology in their place! We’ve got exciting new products in the pipeline in lots of different sectors from innovative FemTech products to medical devices.
Can you share your top tips for entrepreneurial success?
As a start-up without much money, stay “lean” and do some reading about Lean Start-up Principles.
Believe in yourself and your product or idea. It is a long journey sometimes and you absolutely must back yourself when others might not yet. It is amazing how opinionated and discouraging people can be about innovative product ideas and aren’t shy in saying ‘it’ll never work’ until you show them it does. My advice is to be careful whom you share your ideas and inspiration with and take the feedback of your friends and family with a pinch of salt – they aren’t Dragon’s Den investors! If you think you’ve got a great idea, don’t be discouraged and stick with it and just keep plugging away towards your overnight success.
Lastly, be very careful and cautious about whom you go into business with! Plan any business deal and structure for the divorce rather than the marriage and have the hard conversations about expectations and motivations at the very beginning. If your business partners or shareholders aren’t all completely on board with your vision, or prioritise making money rather than sustainable choices, it becomes incredibly difficult to run a purpose-driven business.
What are your favourite inspirational /motivational quotes?
“I always wondered why somebody doesn’t do something about that. Then I realised I was somebody.”
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