How Raze is reinventing the sanitation space during the Covid-19 era
For months now, the world has been eyeing the great unknown of Covid-19 with fear and apprehension from behind closed doors. Sterilizing homes, offices, and every other place that facilitates human interaction has become a top priority on a local and international level. One serial entrepreneur’s passion for commercializing scientific innovation is helping the Hong Kong government and individuals in the collective war against Covid-19.
Vincent Fong has always held the belief that to succeed in a city like Hong Kong, his idea and execution had to be “number one from day one.” He looked to deeptech when he embarked on his entrepreneurial journey, as he felt that bridging scientific breakthroughs with consumer applications held immense potential to better lives.
In 2016, he founded Acoustic Metamaterial Groups (AMG), which made its mark by creating the world’s most efficient sound-absorbing material. AMG won the Gold Medal at the International Exhibition of Inventions in Geneva in 2017, and is now providing custom sound solutions to companies including Hayer and Airbus.
Fong soon came across another innovation that would spark his interest: nano-photocatalyst technology. It is a process where nano-particles release electrons when activated by UV light to form reactive oxygen, which then bind to and decompose pathogens by turning them into water and carbon dioxide molecules. The technology was first made commercially viable in the 1970s and has been used in pollution removal and water disinfection for decades.
He quickly identified that the non-toxic, environmentally-friendly coating had the potential to disrupt the cleaning products market, and set out to optimize it for mass consumer adoption. After a decade of research, the company developed a photocatalyst structure that is activated by regular light, forms a durable coating on any surface, and boasts 99% effective sterilization up to three months. In 2018, Fong co-founded Raze with Dr. Shuyu Chen and its consumer product line launched last year.
Today, the company is the biggest player in the transportation space in Hong Kong, as its products are used in 4,300 Kowloon Motor Bus buses, 18,000 taxis Star Ferry and New World First Ferry. From conceptualizing the product to translating the founders’ vision into reality and adapting to the current health crisis, Raze is certainly a story of our times.
From poultry to properties
When Fong first came across nano-photocatalyst technology, he noted its long-term effectiveness as a distinguishing feature. As regular sanitizers are alcohol-based, they evaporate quickly and must be reapplied to the surface about every two hours. Regular disinfection is especially essential if the surfaces are in densely packed or public places, which are hubs for bacterial or viral growth.
While he knew the applications were expansive, the company initially piloted the product in the agricultural sector–specifically as a disinfectant spray for pigs and poultry. The spray was found to be over ten times more effective in maintaining a safe environment over a long period than traditional disinfectants.
In 2019, Fong teamed up with Henderson Land Development Co-Chairman Dr. Peter Lee Ka-Kit, who suggested that the company should expand the product’s reach to the real estate sector. It wasn’t long after that Raze began receiving inquiries from individuals, prompting it to introduce a business-to-consumer (B2C) product, and as Fong says, “the rest was history.”
Material science is a relatively unexplored avenue in the startup world, posing unique challenges to founders when scaling their companies. With Raze being Fong’s second venture in the deeptech space, the path to bridging science and the real world was more straightforward.
“I’m definitely young in the material science space, and doing it the first time taught me to be a lot more realistic,” says Fong. “The way I see it, the science is there, the breakthrough is there. I have to figure out how to use this breakthrough, turn the research into the product, find a product market and then scale it. For me, it’s less about finding solutions, but more about adapting technology to solve these challenges.”
The pandemic that paved the way
Raze’s story has, in many ways, been serendipitous. When Fong set the wheels of product development into motion before the onset of Covid-19, he was unaware of the immense impact the product would have. In fact, he weighed the option of staying in the agricultural sector instead of expanding into the B2C space, as he was acutely aware of the costs involved in developing a consumer-facing product.
“Stepping out of the comfort zone [of the agricultural sector] was a huge challenge to me,” says Fong.
The pandemic, which has devastated the global economy–and especially the startup ecosystem–had the opposite effect on Raze. The spike in demand for hygiene products has, understandably, accelerated awareness around cleaning products. Fong and his team, however, are not taking a passive approach to growth, and are educating both businesses and consumers alike of the product’s unique properties. The company is making sure that its brand is top-of-mind for consumers by fixing a ‘Raze Inside’ sticker in places where its products are used, such as malls and taxis.
“Everyday, I have one or two text messages like, I was in a taxi, I saw the Raze sticker. And that’s amazing for us,” adds Fong.
While many companies in the sanitation space struggle to meet increased demand for its products, Raze is not facing supply chain issues. As the company’s product was initially developed for the agricultural sector, Fong “made sure that [they] checked all the boxes so that production [could] scale to a really high degree instead of a scientist creating in his lab.” Fong also describes the Covid-19 as a “miracle” in terms of recruiting.
“We’re the only company that’s aggressively hiring right now, so operation-wise, [the pandemic] is not that big of an issue,” he says.
Fong says that there is immense potential for Hong Kong’s material science field, owing to its wealth of talent. Aspiring entrepreneurs are able to work alongside world-renowned scientists and researchers to develop cutting-edge products. Fong adds that the city’s proximity to China provides significant support for manufacturing activities.
By Fong’s account, Hong Kong is well-equipped to become an innovation hub, especially within the deeptech space. However, he cautions founders about the mistake of adapting their production cycles or developing products based on the relatively short-term effects of the Covid-19.
“Yes, the world will change […] millions of people will not be wearing face masks, even though there are millions of facemasks being sold,” says Fong. He advises aspiring entrepreneurs to “look for the macro trends in terms of permanent behavior changes,” so that they can make decisions that are profitable and sustainable in the long-run.
Looking ahead, Fong is striving to expand the applications of his product and does not expect Raze’s rapid growth to slow down any time soon.
“Raze is not going to stop even as a consumer spray,” he says. “I want to get really, really good at this, so that down the road, I can just take any breakthrough in the deep tech field and then benefit mankind.”
Anagha was Jumpstart’s Editorial Intern.