group photo of VioClean team in front of UAH Research Hall

VioClean, a garment sanitizer, recently won the Boeing New Business Challenge. From left in the top row are technology developers Dr. Aubrey Beal, Dr. Tanya Sysoeva and Kailyn Grant. From left in the bottom row are competition team members Andrew Zelinka, Ethan Punch (with the product) and Layla Jeries.

Michael Mercier | UAH

VioClean, a garment and towel sanitizer that uses a technology being patented by The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) has won a student team first place and $8,000 in the recent Boeing New Business Challenge, an annual event hosted and facilitated by the College of Business.

“Our technology capitalizes on the germicidal properties of UV-C light to reduce bacteria to a level that does not cause foul odors in the towel or garment,” says Memphis native Andrew Zelinka, a mechanical engineering senior at UAH, a part of the University of Alabama System.

“Once sanitized, our product also has the ability to warm whatever is inside and apply a fresh scent for an all-around pleasant user experience,” he says. “Our sanitizer can be used for towels, everyday clothing, shoes, etc.”

The VioClean team lead, Zelinka is also a marketing intern at UAH’s Office of Technology Commercialization (OTC) and was in charge of the marketing and business side of the competition.

The team has developed a working prototype, and its test results show that UV-C light kills over 99.9% of bacteria in fabric after 20 minutes of exposure. Team members see a major market for VioClean in the current towel warmer market.

“Within that market, we intend to establish ourselves in the residential segment first and then branch into commercial applications like spas, barber shops, hotels, etc.,” Zelinka says.

The UV-C technology was invented by Kailyn Grant while she was dual-enrolled at UAH in fall 2021; Dr. Aubrey Beal, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering; and Dr. Tanya Sysoeva, an assistant professor of biological science. Currently two patents are pending through the OTC with the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

OTC developed the competition VioClean team and it was mentored by OTC Director Kannan Grant.

“Kannan Grant saw that this would be a great opportunity for a student team to learn how to take an idea from its infant stages all the way to prototyping, testing, building a business plan and possibly raising seed capital,” Zelinka says.

Team members are Zelinka; Ethan Punch, an electrical engineering senior from Thibodaux, La., who developed product realization efforts and a working prototype; and Layla Jeries, a biological sciences junior from Huntsville who tested the product and measured the efficacy of UV-C light in fabric.

Zelinka and Punch graduate this semester, and Punch has expressed enthusiasm for continuing to further refine the VioClean prototype.

“We see the Boeing Challenge as a first step in raising investment dollars,” Zelinka says. “The OTC is already talking to a couple of local companies and entrepreneurs who have shown an interest in commercializing this technology.”

Grant says the Boeing event was very competitive.

“The team did a very good job of conveying a go-to market plan for an innovative technology,” he says. “After the competition I talked to several attendees and the judges, and every one of them wanted to know when they can buy this garment sanitizer. Some even suggested the team should present on Shark Tank.”

OTC’s involvement was gratifying, he says.

“OTC has been involved from the inception. We helped pull together a relevant technology, as well as a team with the exact background to be of value-add,” Grant says. “I think we accomplished our objectives.”

For the VioClean team members, the knowledge and experience gained made the competition worth it, Zelinka says, with or without the prize money.

“We are so glad UAH is able to provide students like us with this wonderful opportunity, and for those of us on the team who are graduating this semester, this is icing on the cake to a great experience at UAH,” he says.

“Through my experience at the OTC and the Boeing New Business Challenge, I’ve gained a huge appreciation for entrepreneurship, and whether or not it is with this technology, I certainly see myself pursuing tech-related entrepreneurial aspirations down the road,” Zelinka says. “I think I speak for the team when I say that this has been the most rewarding experience I’ve had at UAH.”