Student Startup Brings a Greener Approach to Period Care

Single-use menstrual hygiene products contribute unhealthy chemicals and tons of plastics to landfills. This student startup offers a simple way to reduce the impact

Nov 19 2020 | By Jesse Adams | Image Credit: Courtesy of FLOW Period LLC

The disposable conveniences of modern life come at immense ecological cost—not just from used products that can sit in landfills for millennia but also from an entire economy of manufacturing and distributing along the way. One major culprit: single-use menstrual hygiene products.

Reusable silicone cups, which have recently surged in popularity, are much cheaper and more sustainable than disposable pads and tampons. So why do so few users opt for them? This was the question a group of mechanical engineers from the Class of 2020 set out to address in their senior capstone project last year. Teammates Angela Chung, Daniela Durón García, Andrew Parda, and Taya Voronko explored the user experience of these reusable cups and concluded that the inconvenience and indiscretion of having to clean them presented a huge barrier for potential consumers, even those who would otherwise be eager to go greener.

“It’s easy to see all the benefits that cups provide, but I couldn’t figure out how to make the shift personally because I lived in a dorm and shared a public bathroom,” recalls team member Daniela Durón García. “I felt I’d get a lot of dirty stares if I had to scrub my cup in the sink.”

But what if a simple product could make sanitizing menstrual cups easy and discreet wherever one might be, without the need to boil or use harsh chemicals? Inspired, the team decided to design a portable device known as the FLOW that both cleans and sanitizes cups. Their first step was to conduct research by speaking to a variety of users, surveying products already available on the market, and consulting with Columbia Engineering faculty and staff. Then, they began masterminding the solution.

“Our initial concept indulged all of our various engineering inclinations,” says Voronko. “We considered motors, water jets, a mobile app and lots of electronics, but our professors helped us focus in on leaning less on complicated tech and more on simple mechanics.”

the FLOW team

FLOW Period LLC members.

The FLOW is not the only product we hope to launch. Our ultimate goal is to expand to a line of products providing safe, sustainable, and economical period care around the world.

Daniela Durón García
Class of 2020

Over time, their idea evolved from something like a salad spinner that could both wash and dry cups to a more compact design incorporating a UV light to ensure total sanitization. By spring semester, they were ready to start building a prototype in time for the annual Senior Design Expo —and then came COVID-19. Just days after the team acquired the necessary materials, campus shut down and they were suddenly scattered across the country, far from the extensive resources of the Columbia Makerspace and other Manhattan-based facilities.

Amid all the disruption, the focus of senior design projects shifted from building functional prototypes to drafting viable business plans. Convinced they’d found a game-changing concept, the FLOW team connected remotely with faculty like Josh Browne, Kristin Myers, Harry West and Yevgeniy Yesilevskiy to map out entering the marketplace.

“Professor Yesilevskiy has been a tremendous supporter and offered a ton of guidance along the way,” Durón García says. “He helped inspire several versions of our rotational cleaning mechanisms and was always there to help us troubleshoot as we encountered design problems. Plus, he’s spent hours guiding us through the provisional patent application process.”

“Professor West has influenced our whole philosophy,” Parda adds. “We’ve channeled his human-centered design thinking to begin and end with a focus on the end users’ experience interacting with our product. We work to make the technology fit into their lives in the simplest manner possible to deliver the most value.”

After graduation in May, Durón García, Parda and Voronko founded FLOW Period LLC with the goal of bringing their debut product to consumers within the next one to two years. As they learn the ropes of running a startup, they’ve been raising funds for the materials, tools and software they’ll need to create a market-ready prototype.

“The FLOW is not the only product we hope to launch,” Durón García says. “Our ultimate goal is to expand to a line of products providing safe, sustainable, and economical period care around the world.”