Mert Iseri and Yuri Malina had been tasked with developing a product that created real social impact while studying at North Western University. After noting that most people wipe their hands on their legs when they are dirty, they were inspired to tackle hand hygiene within hospitals.
After all, there was plenty of room for improvement: despite the fact that approximately 100,000 patients die in the US alone from hospital acquired infection – something which is largely spread through the poor hand hygiene of healthcare practitioners – most hospitals still use the antiquated method of pen and paper to monitor hand hygiene. Mert and Yuri’s idea was to digitalise the process by creating a web of sensors around every hospital that talk to each other so that they could collect data to establish when a healthcare worker has entered and exited a room and if they sanitised their hands.
“We came up with this idea and created a prototype over a summer,” says Mert. “Personal dispensers – we thought it was revolutionary. I’m not going to lie, I felt great about myself. Mert, you’re such a genius, you came up with this thing!” The design engineer dined out on his idea in class, during presentations and parties alike. He was riding high on a wave of success… until one comment stopped him in his tracks.
“Right before I graduated, one of my peers asked me ‘OK, so you guys talk about how many lives are lost through hospital acquired infection. Mert, how many lives has your product saved?’ and I said, ‘Well, it’s just a prototype’, and it just felt like such a shitty answer, you know?” Mert admits. “It was a cop out. It was basically like saying ‘it was just an idea and the rest doesn’t matter.’ But the rest is everything, taking it into the real world gives an idea value, other than that it’s just a Post-It. Who cares about an idea that looks good on a Post-It but doesn’t really impact the real world? It was at that moment that we decided, OK, we have to be entrepreneurs and not just designers.”
After realising that they had a moral obligation to make SwipeSense a reality, the next step entailed walking into a hospital – which Mert admits sounds “kind of rudimentary” – and asking if they could run their idea past someone. “There’s a thing that’s very special about being young and naïve – and a little bit stupid – you can use what I call your ‘student-ness’,” Mert explains. “You can get away with a lot of things by saying, ‘Look, I’m just here to learn.’ By the time you get to your third or fourth ‘no’, someone is going to agree to talk to you for twenty minutes. And all you need is that person to sit down with you and point you in the right direction.”
Which is what happened when Mert and Yuri entered Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago and someone finally agreed to discuss their idea. That same person ended up being instrumental to them being accepted into Healthbox, a healthcare business accelerator in Chicago. “We wouldn’t have got into Heathbox if it wasn’t for that chance encounter in the hospital. We wouldn’t have been in the hospital if it wasn’t for my friend who kind of made fun of me for having an idea that didn’t change anyone’s life…” Mert muses. Indeed, it was this series of events that led to the pair raising their first million in seed capital just 12 months after graduating from college.
SwipeSense is now being used in hospitals across 11 states in America, with one of their earliest customers reporting a massive 64% reduction in hospital acquired infection rates. “Right now our main goal is simple; get into every single hospital in the US by the year 2020,” says Mert, who admits to feeling a huge responsibility to roll out SwipeSense to as many hospitals as possible. “That’s a large and audacious goal and we’re doing everything in our power to make that a reality.”
And that all comes down to the real, lasting impact this project has on the world. “It’s the feeling like you’ve saved someone’s life…” he explains. “There’s something very real and raw in the knowledge that you’re creating impact on the world and you’re going to leave this place a little bit better to how you found it, it’s that feeling that I’m addicted to.”