This Harvard MBA Wants To Disrupt Insect Repellent

Andrew Rothaus (left) and Abraar Karan won this year’s Harvard Business School New Venture Competition. Courtesy photo

Around the time Andrew Rothaus enrolled in Harvard Business School’s full-time MBA program in 2016, the Zika virus outbreak was peaking in South Florida. Rothaus, who will graduate from the school this spring, had a personal connection to the virus. His sister-in-law, who lived in the Wynwood district of Miami — a Zika hot spot — learned she was pregnant.

“While she was obviously very excited to be pregnant — she really wanted to have a child — she was also very scared,” Rothaus, 28, tells Poets&Quants. “She didn’t know what was going to happen.”

While Zika fever — the sickness associated with the Zika virus that is contracted through mosquito bites — is rated as “extremely rare” by the Centers for Disease Control, with fewer than 1,000 known cases in the U.S. per year, in 2016 pregnant women in the Southeast were deemed to be at the greatest risk. Zika is believed to cause birth defects in the children carried by women who contract it. These facts got the wheels churning for Rothaus and served as the genesis of a product and company now called hour72+, which won a total of $80,000 at this year’s New Venture Competition at Harvard earlier this month (April 18).

PARTNERING WITH A PHYSICIAN

Andrew Rothaus

Rothaus graduated from Yale in 2011 and spent five years at Macquarie Group’s New York City office as a derivatives trader. When he decided to leave the Sydney, Australia-based financial services firm to get his MBA, Rothaus only applied to HBS in Round 1 and figured he’d apply to Wharton or Stanford’s Graduate School of Business in Round 2 if he didn’t get in.

He got in. “The news was good,” Rothaus says of the HBS Round 1 decision.

Around the time Rothaus learned of his sister-in-law’s pregnancy, a friend asked for his help with a hair product he was developing. The product was built to have long-lasting features, Rothaus says, meaning you could put it in your hair and it would hold for longer than the average styling product. Rothaus asked if the friend thought the same product could work on skin and the friend, an MIT Ph.D., thought it probably could.

They decided to test it in the lab. The team took their primary molecule and bonded it to fluorescein, a dye that is essentially used as a florescent tracer, and then applied it to the feet of test volunteers. After a baseline measurement right after application, the volunteers lived their typical lives for the next three days. “They showered, they went to the gym, they went to work — everything normal people do,” Rothaus says. After 72 hours, another measurement — and “what we found was the persistence of skin as measured by the fluorescents was at 52% on average,” Rothaus says.

PRODUCT IS ‘99% MORE EFFECTIVE THAN DEET’

The next step was to bond the product to mosquito repellent. Once that was done, Rothaus and his current business partner, Abraar Karan, applied it to their own skin. Anecdotally, Rothaus says, it worked. But they decided to take it a step further and have the product tested at a bona fide mosquito lab in South Carolina.

At the lab, volunteers applied the mosquito repellent to their arms and stuck them in a box full of mosquitos. Researchers then tracked how many mosquitos landed on the arms of volunteers, as well as how many actually bit. “Our product outperformed DEET,” Rothaus says of the product test.

After about eight hours in a lab setting, Rothaus says, DEET — the most widely used mosquito repellent in the U.S. — is only about 60% effective. Meanwhile, the citronella and lemon-eucalyptus oil concoction Rothaus and Karan, who is a physician, created still performed at 100% after eight hours. By 24 hours, DEET is completely gone, but hour72+ is still at 98%, Rothaus says, which means that 98% of mosquitos didn’t land on a wearer’s arm after a full day and night.

And of the 2% that did land, 100% did not bite — “which makes it 99% more effective than DEET,” Rothaus points out.