From Paper to Prototype

As 2016 comes to a close, we wanted to take this opportunity to write to you about our year at SoaPen Inc. We had the incredible chance to be featured in the UNICEF Stories blog this past month. What follows is our journey from a sketch to prototype that you can check out on UNICEF's official blog as well!

In Our Wildest Dreams

The four of us had just graduated from design school specializing in Industrial Design. We asked ourselves and each other, “What’s next?” We felt the post-graduation vacuum of no creative stimulation – the lack of space and projects. We were no longer able to access our shop equipment such as the laser cutter labs, CNC prototyping facilities, woodshop and metal fabrication shops. So, we took this opportunity to brainstorm and prototype using the most basic (and classic!) tools: an Olfa knife and cardboard. What would come next was beyond our wildest imaginations.


Accustomed to being assigned project briefs, we were also looking for a purpose. We knew that we wanted to design something that would help people all over the world.Thus, we began to research design challenges that would give us purpose, structure, and clear goals. The UNICEF Wearables for Good Challenge spoke to us as it aimed to address rapidly evolving problems around the world. The challenge also gave us specific constraints which enabled us to understand the people who we were designing for. Specifically, we were particularly moved by the Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) problem and hoped to design a tool that can influence behavior change and help increase the number of young children who adequately wash their hands. Also, having limited prototyping tools worked in our favor as it was easier to put ourselves in the mindset of having very few resources, with the intention to be ‘cost-effective, rugged + durable, scalable, easily produced/developed, easy to use, easy to maintain’ – as the use case handbook required.

The Aha! Moment We were shocked to learn that – more than 750,000 million children under the age of 5 die annually from infectious diseases and that these deaths could have been prevented –  simply by washing your hands at key times daily. We had a desire to address this grave issue through promoting good handwashing habits. But how? What if we can make hand washing actually, fun! This type of design thinking led us to develop SoaPen. We submitted a sketch of our idea – a rendering of how SoaPen would work as a teaching tool to promote the habit of handwashing among children aged three to six, to The UNICEF Wearables for Good Challenge in August 2015. Fast forward three months, and to our surprise, we got picked as one of the ten finalists! We were asked to evolve our design further and think through the form and packaging of SoaPen. Before the final submission, we also conducted our first concept evaluation in a low-income primary school in Mumbai during our two-week mentorship period. This trip was one of the first of many rapid prototyping product evaluations we experienced. Through this experience, we were able to identify more information about our users. For instance, we realized that children do not appreciate light colors or blunt tips when they’re drawing on their hands.

Our first concept of SoaPen with peel away paper. Our first concept of SoaPen with peel away paper.

Final submission after our first field evaluation.

Final submission after our first field evaluation.  

During this study, we also saw first-hand the problem of lack of soap and infrastructure in schools and started to realize the challenges that we were eventually going to face. These challenges only made us more excited about developing our novel idea and in making SoaPen as stimulating and exciting as possible.

From the Limelight to Lime Labs

November 2016 at the Slush conference in Helsinki in front of thousands of people, cameras, and flashing lights, we were chosen as one of the two winners of The Wearables For Good Challenge. It was all very surreal and exciting. But then, the hard work began. Just shortly after, we started an intense, yet incredibly rewarding, 4-month incubation program curated and coordinated by the UNICEF Office of Innovation. During this programme, we were mentored to think about SoaPen holistically; examining every angle – from improving the user experience to building an actual business. The UNICEF team brought to the table an incredible list of mentors with expertise in different facets of building a consumer product business. We received mentorship from industrial and interaction designers from the frog design team, marketing specialists from ARM and Orange SV, multiple talents from UNICEF Innovation, a web developer from Andela, a start-up consultant Academy and X. We also received full legal support from Cooley to incorporate as a business. We had weekly calls set up with all our advisors where we shared our progress and strategized on our next steps, and even had the opportunity to work alongside them for a week in San Francisco in February. We even spent an entire day at PCH and Lime Labs learning about CSR and the entire manufacturing and distribution process – at least in a nutshell. Having access to such an extensive network of specialists would have been impossible for us to meet at such an early idea stage of the business without the Wearables for Good Challenge and the UNICEF team.


Paper to Prototype The Incubation Program and all the partners involved helped us overcome our biggest hurdle, which was testing our product without having an actual working prototype. Creating a chemical composition is not easy, and certainly not cheap, but before we could even tackle that, we needed to understand our market and our users to know exactly what we needed to build. With the help of our mentors, we designed an evaluation study that would allow us to test our SoaPen concept without having actual prototypes developed. We knew hypothetically and through observation that children would be more amiable to washing their hands if they could draw on them first, but had no proof that it was true. With help from our mentors at frog and Academy, we designed a study wherein children drew on their hands with face crayons and then washed it off using liquid soap poured into a roll on bottle. Though the study comprised of a two-step process that didn’t entirely mimic SoaPen, it strengthened our theory that children loved drawing on their hands and having a mark on their hands helped them learn the correct way and time duration of washing their hands. Interacting with students on a daily basis was the best part of the study. We saw first-hand how creative children were with their drawings. One day, as the kids were drawing on each other’s hands, a little boy drew a coconut on his friend’s hand. But his friend was not satisfied, so he took the crayon from his hand and exclaimed: “What’s a coconut without a straw!?” And then proceeded to add a straw on his hand. These children’s creativity continues to motivate us. It was also extremely pleasing to note that after the first week, children didn’t need to be prompted to mark their hands before washing. It became second nature to them which was our goal from the very beginning – behavioral change. 5

After all, we learned and the ample market research we conducted, we gained more confidence to start building a working prototype for SoePen. First, we approached the Institute of Chemical Technology in Mumbai to develop our soap composition. Then we were finally able to get creative – after all, we’re Industrial Designers – and got to choose what molds are needed for our soap, what fragrances go with which colors, and packaging solution that is sustainable and disposable.

6 From being an idea on paper in January, we now have SoaPen in two different formulations and multiple colors: blue, green, orange and pink.   

No Limits We are excited about what the future holds now that we have working prototypes for SoaPen. Our dream of bringing SoaPen to children all around the world is becoming real. Soon, we will be launching our campaign and we’ll put the funds we’ll raise towards our first round of production of SoaPens. We are also working on refining our business model which is exceptionally challenging aspect to any consumer good start-up, in particular with a mission-driven bottom line. But our mission is what keeps us moving forward and our goal for SoaPen to reach children’s hands to save their lives, is more and more real every day. If you would like to work with us, invest in us, or partner with us, please reach out. If we learned anything during this past year is that it there are no limits to what we can all achieve when working together.

Thank you for continuing to support us on this amazing venture and a happy new year from Team SoaPen!
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