How did a childhood memory spur the formation of a global company that acts as a barrier against illness and saves? Why is its founder actively seeking to enter difficult markets in developing countries rather than rely on demand in the developed world? Stéphane Pénari, CEO, MetalSkin Technologies explained to Mohana M, Editor, Clean India Journal how coating high-touch surfaces with a natural element-based product is the future of long-term disinfection.
Back in the 70s, an eight-year-old Stéphane Pénari was visiting his grandfather’s countryside home for his summer holidays. Like all grandchildren, he looked up to his grandpa and considered him a genius. One day, he saw Grandpa stripping the copper from an electrical wire to make a thread that would be placed on the barn roof. Why? Grandpa said that when it rained, the copper would protect the roof from moss, and he wouldn’t have to spend much time cleaning and maintaining the roof.
Grandpa performed this ritual only once every fifteen years; if little Stéphane, who always remembered this scene, had missed that day, MetalSkin might perhaps not exist.
The seed of an idea
Years later, Pénari’s furniture design business had a workshop where metal could be sprayed on any surface to make an object look metallic. One day, a scientist asked if he could coat a toilet seat with copper. Why? The scientist wanted to study the antimicrobial efficacy of copper in hospitals. Pénari remembered the moss story from his childhood. Something clicked.
Months later, the study confirmed that the copper-plated seat was extremely effective against bacteria. Grandpa, who was born over a century ago in rural France, had been right all along.
Piloting a business
About a decade ago, Pénari began experimenting to see if copper technology could be applied to a wider range of surfaces. He convinced a hospital to let him coat door handles and light switches in a surgical area. Lo and behold, the hospital’s microbiologists found that MetalSkin helped contain contamination and also reduced the need for constant hygiene training.
He decided to create a business out of his efforts. “I left my old life, and dedicated myself to this virtuous project, as in the end, the goal is to protect people. I had achieved success in my other businesses; now, I wanted to create another success that is also meaningful”, Pénari said.
An identity of its own
At the time of our conversation, he had recently returned from Brazil, where he saw that the hygiene conditions in public transport especially, were very similar to India. Repeated cleaning and disinfection are not practical in high-traffic areas; what is disinfected now can be contaminated again by a single touch. This problem needs a long-lasting solution. A disinfected surface may remain so for mere minutes; a MetalSkin-coated surface kills microbes for years.
“We are at the right place at the right time with the right technology”, said Pénari. “We use only a natural element – copper. We follow sustainable processes and use only recycled copper; our material is recyclable too.”
Obstacles in the path
The director of a hospital once told Pénari, “If we use your technology, we will be acknowledging that we do not clean our hospital properly.” Resistance to new solutions was high. Many people didn’t even want to consider the possibility that their standard of cleaning is inadequate. “In the first two years, I thought about quitting many times”, Pénari said.
He found that the lab conditions under which products are tested do not exist in the real world, especially in developing countries. Moisture levels in Indian buses, for example, do not match those in a French lab, and products used in high-traffic areas do not have the luxury of a prolonged contact time in which they can act.
Pénari went on to work with experts and ISO to create a new standard of cleaning: Under normal conditions and in one hour of contact time, a product must prove that it can kill 99% of bacteria. No higher standard exists.
The turning point
Four years ago, Pénari decided to go all in and dedicate all his time to MetalSkin. It required all his savings, and brought him back almost to startup level, but he has no regrets. Why? Because he has a sense of purpose.
“I can easily sell my product in rich European countries like the UK, Germany, Italy, Spain and others that are close to me”, said Pénari. “But where are they needed more? Brazil, India, Africa and other countries. That’s why when we were approached by our Indian distributor, I was enthusiastic about going ahead. Because at the end of the day, we cannot do much to clean the air, but with MetalSkin, we can do a great deal to keep surfaces clean”.
The social dimension of MetalSkin is at least as important to him as financial profit, perhaps even more. “When I shall look back 10 years from now, MetalSkin will probably have saved at least some people’s lives, or prevented them from falling sick. I have designed hotels earlier, even worked with large companies to create their offices, but nothing is more meaningful to me than keeping the people who live and work there safe”.
Grandpa’s idea will now protect millions and millions of people in practice.