Just add water ... and venture capital

  • Article by: WENDY LEE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 25, 2010 - 6:58 PM

Start-up Activeion harnesses ionizing technology to offer a high-tech, no-chemical cleaning solution. But is it too good to be true?

Todd Schaeffer, Activeion vice president and general manager, demonstrated the ionator designed for residential use. The sprayer uses ordinary tap water that receives an electrical charge when you press the trigger button.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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Got dirt?

A Rogers-based company called Activeion Cleaning Solutions says you can kill germs on toilets, floors -- even toothbrushes -- using only tap water and the company's "ionator," a $169 plastic spray bottle.

The device sends an electric charge to the water, killing germs and even the H1N1 virus, the company claims.

The notion of using just water as a cleanser has been met with skepticism from consumers and scientists who question whether the product cleans as well as using conventional soap or other chemicals.

Now, apparently, the market will decide. The company recently received $2 million in venture capital, which it plans to use to bolster its marketing and distribution operations.

Activeion's ionator already has drawn national attention, landing on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" and appearing on Forbes magazine's "best breakout business ideas" of 2009. Bill Nye the Science Guy has signed on as spokesman. The company was one of just three Minnesota start-ups to raise venture capital in the first quarter, according to the Money Tree Report by PricewaterhouseCoopers and the National Venture Capital Association.

Activeion appears to be on the fast track to growth, with sales expected at $20 million to $30 million in 2010. That would be up from about $2 million in 2009, said David Jones, a managing partner at SAIL Venture Partners in Costa Mesa, Calif., which made the VC investment.

"We've been extremely pleased," Jones said. "Frankly, we would like to have more invested if we could."

Activeion says its spray bottle, powered by rechargeable batteries, sends an electric charge to the tap water when you press the trigger button. The ionized water on surfaces pick up more dirt than regular water, the company said. In addition, Activeion says the electrically charged water kills germs by sending enough of an electric shock to the bacteria to break them apart. Spray and let the water sit on a surface for 6 seconds before wiping away, the company recommends.

"It's very, very interesting technology that is growing quite rapidly and will change the way a lot of people do their cleaning over the years," said Jim Wiese, Activeion's CEO. Benefits include health, safety, sustainability and cost savings over time, he said.

Using an ionator for general-purpose commercial cleaning over five years of use can save the equivalent of 93 gallons of gasoline and two barrels of oil, according to an Activeion-sponsored study by Jack Geibig from the Center for Clean Products at the University of Tennessee Knoxville and technical analysis company EcoForm.

Too good to be true?

But is it too good to be true? Some microbiologists are skeptical. Although tap water in the ionator may receive an electric charge in the machine, it's not possible for the water to stay ionized long enough to have any impact once it hits the surface, said Patrick Schlievert, a professor of microbiology at the University of Minnesota. The end result, he said, is spraying tap water onto a surface. Using just water may remove some bacteria by wiping it away, but it can't kill bacteria as well as soap or products with alcohol can, he adds.

"I don't buy it," Schlievert said. "From a chemical point of view, it kind of makes no sense."

In response to skeptics on the ionizer's cleaning abilities, Wiese said the product has had lab tests that meet the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's lab protocol, which show the product is able to kill bacteria and the H1N1 virus on surfaces.

"It's not a miracle cleaner, but it cleans as well as the general purpose cleaner that is being used today," Wiese said.

Activeon began in the late summer of 2008 and has a small group of investors. It licenses the ionator technology from Golden Valley-based Tennant Co., a leading manufacturer of commercial and industrial floor-cleaning equipment.

Tennant already builds commercial cleaning machines that use ionized water to scrub floors. The invention came from a Tennant employee who wanted to find a safe way to clean a glass cage for his pet chinchilla.

Activeion started selling its spray bottles online in February 2009. The company said it has produced tens of thousands of the products so far, but declined to say how many ionators have sold. Currently, Activeion sells two types of ionators for household cleaning and professional cleaning at price points ranging from $169 to $329.

Wegmans Food Markets, located mostly in the Eastern region of the United States, will sell ionators for consumer use starting as early as next month, in about 20 of its stores that have been successful at selling organic and natural products, said Jo Natale, a Wegmans spokeswoman.

Moving forward, Wiese said he would like to grow the company's footprint abroad and continue to increase sales. The company opened an office in Europe earlier this year, and currently has about a dozen distributors abroad and 75 distributors in Canada and the United States. Wiese said he would like to see the number of distributors in Europe expand to 75 by the end of the year.

The company is not profitable right now, but will be soon, Wiese said. He declined to give a timeline.

The company uses a manufacturing facility near its headquarters that has the potential to assemble and test up to 600 ionators in 6 1/2 hours. Activeion's offices have grown from just one employee in 2008 to around 30 today, said Todd Schaeffer, vice president and general manager.

Competitors are looking

Already, Activeion's competition is also taking a closer look at the ionator technology as more consumers are looking for ways to clean their homes that are environmentally friendly and use fewer chemicals.

"It is among the many things we are looking at," said Michael Monahan, vice president of external relations for St. Paul-based Ecolab, which makes cleaning, sanitizing, food safety and infection control products. "We are always looking at new technologies [that] provide the best solutions for consumers."

A continuing challenge for the company will be educating consumers so they understand how the product works, said David Hopkins, managing director of Carlson Brand Enterprise at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management. Activeion has posted educational videos on its website, reached out to influential people in the cleaning industry and marketed itself through social networking sites. Schaeffer said the company has been careful how it portrays the product.

"It's very cool, capable technology," Schaeffer said. "It's not a miracle."

One customer provided by Activeion said she and her children wash their hands with the ionator rather antibacterial gel. However, the company does not advertise using the ionator for that purpose, Schaeffer said.

The University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire spent $6,650 on 35 ionators to clean its academic buildings, said custodial manager Ray Francis. Francis says his staff uses the ionator to clean windows, doorknobs and white boards. Before using the ionator, the university had used general-purpose cleaners on those surfaces, he said. He estimates the seven-month period of using the ionators generated a savings of around $325.

But Francis says his staff doesn't use the ionator to clean the bathrooms, even though Activeion advertises you can use it for those purposes. Francis said from a "psychological perspective," cleaning toilets with just the ionator may not go over so well.

Wendy Lee • 612-673-1712

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