The female scientists and founders duo behind Wayakit explain how the COVID-19 crisis led to a business pivot, which ultimately opened doors to new sectors such as the aviation industry.By Aalia Mehreen Ahmed September 14, 2021Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.
Since its inception in 2016, the TAQADAM Startup Accelerator, a program powered by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in collaboration with Riyadh-based Saudi British Bank, has been able to boast of providing a nurturing environment for many successful startups. TAQADAM Tales is a series of success stories of six such businesses, and through these, what is made evident is TAQADAM’s secret for success, which seems to be a combination of the best of technological advancements and mentorship, with a keen focus on building a sense of community within Saudi Arabia’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.
WayakitLuisa Javier and Sandra Medina, co-founders, Wayakit
Graduates of TAQADAM’s 2018 cohort, Luisa Javier and Sandra Medina launched their biotech startup Wayakit in 2019. Wayakit started out by developing a laundry spray that can be used by travelers on the go- a product that Medina very succinctly describes as “a washing machine in your pocket!” The inspiration for it, in fact, came out of a traveling mishap of sorts which both ladies experienced a few years ago. “The first spark for Wayakit came when we were travelling for a conference, and the airline lost our luggage during that trip,” recalls Medina, who is also the startup’s CTO. “At that moment we realized the challenge of doing laundry while travelling and thought of using our technology and our knowledge to solve this issue.”
While this initial idea went through multiple iterations when both founders enrolled in TAQADAM, the biggest, and possibly most significant, step in this entire journey was one that happened outside the science laboratory, says Medina. “As scientists, what we wanted to do whenever we had a new idea was to go to the lab and start developing on it,” she explains. “But what TAQADAM taught us is that first, before anything, you need to understand the customer, and validate the market. So, we conducted more than 120 interviews, and identified two pain points for travelers: smells and stains. Our laundry spray was created to target these two issues.”
TAQADAM’s approach to entrepreneurship held special significance for CEO Javier, who says it completely changed the way she perceived her job, despite having ventured into other entrepreneurial endeavors in the past. And that mental shift in perception was only accentuated with mentors like 500 Startups MENA’s Partner Amal Dokhan to guide them, she says. “ I still remember the first conversation I had with Amal Dokhan,” adds Javier. “She said: ‘Are you ready to put a bit on hold all the entrepreneurial knowledge that you have? Leave it there and re-learn!” For me coming from doing a business, and having a background in entrepreneurship, that was impressive. I think there was a shift!”
Related: Creativity Crystallizes: TAQADAM, Powered By KAUST And SABB, Invites Applications For Its Fall 2021 Cohort Luisa Javier and Sandra Medina at the new production plant, located at the KAUST Research Park. Source: Wayakit
But with the laundry spray targeted primarily towards the travel sector, one of the most adversely affected industries during the peak of the global coronavirus crisis, it was effectively rendered unusable for a while. That didn’t stop the duo however- they quickly pivoted towards a new product: an organic disinfectant. “We knew that our laundry spray had some antibacterial properties, but we had never tested for viruses before,” elaborates Medina. “So we modified it to create our second product- a disinfectant that kills the coronavirus in 30 seconds. It is nothing like what you find in the market. Our product is based on natural components -our active component being citric acid- and it is really effective.”
Of course, this transition was made easier with KAUST offering the entrepreneurs the use of a new production plant, located at the KAUST Research Park, which allows manufacturing of up to 20,000 liters of its new disinfectant per day. But as sudden and unexpected as this pivot was, it was also one that opened new doors for Wayakit. “Our product is now used to disinfect the cabins of aircrafts like Air France and KLM,” explains Javier. “We migrated a little bit from the solution of the spray, and went to a solution that can help with disinfection in the B2B area.”
Now, with the travel industry slowly getting back on its feet again, and plans to close a US$4 million pre-Series A round later this year, this duo of female scientists are keen on taking their enterprise forward. “Right now, we are in a position of starting business in the complicated aviation industry but it is exciting,” explains Javier. “However, in the Middle East, we see a great potential for introducing this type of disinfectant in the B2C segment as well. We are planning to use the next round of funding to increase our production capacity.”