Addressing vulnerability with alcohol — in the VOW lab

Tim Noakesmith
Mar 24, 2020 · 5 min read

When COVID-19 was announced to have spread in Wuhan, my partner Ella expressed her concerns about this new virus, we discussed the news briefly and, unheedingly, I moved onto thinking about other things.

The whole situation progressed pretty quickly — this was starting to hit China in a real way and when I spoke to my co-founder George on the phone, we both agreed this might hinder our efforts in the lab.

The next morning we delivered the message to the team:

  1. Find out what items we require (or might soon require) from China.
  2. Order it — fast — in bulk.

It turns out that this was a lot of items (we’re heavily dependant on lab consumables for our work). Our modest little storage room became unruly to navigate (looking more like an Amazon fulfilment centre with every arrival) but we were sure we’d mitigated the worst of the situation, getting right back to work.

We were very wrong.

It turns out that this bulk order in early February was the first action of a COVID policy that is now changing every single day.

On the 25th of January the first case of COVID-19 was announced in Australia. By the start of March this number was 29. In Italy this number was 1,694. If there’s one thing we understand as a startup focusing on cell biology, it’s the power of the exponential curve. We knew this could get dangerous, and fast. So we started to formulate what our own COVID-19 policy might look like.

(Shout out to Blackbird, who are one of VOW’s investors, for popping together an awesome open-source policy that helped us here.)

In trying to fulfil our own internal COVID policy we went scouting for hand sanitiser, searching all across Sydney. We basically had zero success.

Screenshot from our VOW COVID Policy

I think for a lot of the world, this pandemic has been like watching a distant car swerving ahead you, on a high speed motorway. One second you’re observing passively, empathetic to the chaos unfolding ahead of you, until suddenly, you’re right there in the collision zone, a part of that chaos, shocked by how fast everything is upon you, and reacting wildly.

Stopping the spread of COVID is a collective responsibility. Every person who delays or prevents their own vulnerability to infection will reduce the load on our healthcare systems, ensuring those who need it most can get access to quality medical attention in a timely manner.

Individuals taking their own health and the health of others seriously will ultimately save lives, the necessary steps for preventing the spread are simple and well-defined and as business leaders we have a huge part to play in that, extending beyond our own internal policies.

There are a lot of negatives to having a lab-based startup during this pandemic, but access to a wide array of chemical ingredients is not one of them.

VOW is fostering what one can only describe as a MacGyver culture, encouraging unconventional approaches to solve problems, and so it didn’t take us long to realise that hand sanitiser is actually a pretty simple mix of things, most of which were already in our lab.

We got to work producing this initial batch for our team, but it quickly became apparent that this wasn’t just a problem for VOW.

Panic buying is leaving people vulnerable. We’ve felt it, our friends and family have felt it and we realised some of you might be feeling it too. So for a fleeting moment in time, we shifted focus from changing the future of food, to producing hand sanitiser to share with our community.

Our first batch of bottles arrived and on my dining table.

We’re sharing the steps in the hope that other companies or individuals with access to the materials can do it too.

  1. We sourced the bottles, (PET bottles are light and malleable, ideal for small hand sanitiser bottles.)
  2. We sourced the recipe (WHO approved) — we had the ethanol and the glycerol already, and the hydrogen peroxide seemed to be the only thing not yet subject to panic buying. NOTE: essential oils was our own little touch, it leaves your hands with a subtle nice smell, reinforcing the hygiene habit.
  3. We used our in-lab label printer (with a few adjustments to the design) to ensure we were transparent about the ingredients, and to share a relevant quote.
  4. We added some VOW swag (optional — but a nice touch)
  5. We express-shipped to our community (sooner is better when it comes to personal hygiene) — or did mailbox drops for those who lived super locally. This included friends, family, investors and other connections.

Wishing you all safety and eased minds as this wild scenario unfolds.

Ella and I — lending a hand in the lab.

Notable problems in first batch and useful improvements being implemented in v2.0:

  1. Pump nozzle isn’t super usable (liquid comes out a little violently — so if you’ve received one of ours, watch out for this!)
    * V2.0 will uses an ‘atomiser’ spray nozzle — this isn’t only easier to use but will help these little bottles go further, and because it was the only remaining option, these also have some nice gold coloured detailing!
  2. We ran out of bottles — fast. It turns out there was a sincere need for these hand sanitisers, we were overwhelmed by the interest in our first run of these.
    * We have ordered a bunch more bottles, and new nozzles, to be able to satisfy the demand and continue to bring help to our community.
Incoming version 2.0


Vow — unlocking nature’s food secrets

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