Beau Wangtrakuldee’s physical scarring from the chemical burn is long gone. But her memories of the terrifying and painful accident five years ago in a laboratory at Northern Illinois University in Chicago remain vivid.
She was in the fourth year of a doctoral program in chemistry. It was around 8 on a Friday night and Wangtrakuldee was alone, conducting an organic synthesis — combining chemicals such as ketones, aldehydes, and isocyanide with a carboxylic acid — for an anticancer drug. As she poured the mixture into another container, Wangtrakuldee spilled a large amount onto her lab coat, which soaked through to her jeans and onto her legs, the methanol in the concoction causing it to absorb into her skin quickly.
With no one else around, she quickly stripped off her clothing, but not before she sustained what felt like a bad sunburn for a week.
“I was really lucky because it could have been so much worse,” Wangtrakuldee said in a recent interview.
That realization is why the now resident of Philadelphia and consultant to biotech companies is pivoting from chemist to clothing entrepreneur to do two primary things for women working in STEM: Protect them from injury and enable them to wear something more fashionable than a lab coat.
AmorSui — “love yourself” in Latin — launched last fall at www.amorsuiclothing.com after raising $15,000 in 40 days through I Fund Women, a crowdfunding platform for female entrepreneurs. Its fire-resistant tops, skirts, dresses, and pants, priced from $60 to $180, are named after women scientists, including Marie Curie, Rachel Carson, Rosalind Franklin, and Lise Meitner.
By some estimates, the global market for personal protective equipment — which also includes goggles, ear plugs, and respirators among other non-clothing items — is expected to expand at a compound annual growth rate of 6.2 percent through 2023, with the U.S. market alone reaching $53 billion by that time. The clothing portion of that — including lab coats, overalls, and aprons — is currently $19 billion.
AmorSui sales have reached about $5,000 a month, Wangtrakuldee said. While declining to disclose revenue projections, she said a deal is pending with a major supplier to universities, hospitals, and pharmaceutical companies that would likely lead to creation of a wholesale line next year.
Married to a chemist, Wangtrakuldee has so far invested $40,000, about half of that in personal funds, in the company that has no full-time employees yet. She’s using a manufacturer in Allentown and relying on creative advice from Old City fashion designer Lele Tran.
Lab wear is new territory for Tran, who said she was surprised to learn there was woven-and-knit fabric that was resistant to chemical spills and fire, yet soft.
“My only advice to her was to keep it simple and classy,” said Tran, who has done extensive custom work in prom and wedding dresses. “It’s wonderful to know that there are a lot of women who are working in the lab that are scientists and want to look fashionable in the lab."
Wangtrakuldee, who has begun talking to angel investors, is also planning to develop a maternity line next year and, in 2021, expand AmorSui’s offerings to women in other professions requiring protective clothing, such as chefs and firefighters.
“Then after that, we may be thinking about expanding into a male market,” she said.
The scientist in Wangtrakuldee, 31, also is interested in developing the company’s own fabric that is not only fire- and chemical-resistant but also has a tech component. For example, an embed that could detect an explosion and report it to an app that would alert a company’s safety officer.
“I don’t think lab coats will ever go away,” Wangtrakuldee said.
But if the clothing worn under them can add another layer of protection and also be more fashionable, women can "feel confident at work so they can be the best they can be,“ she said.
For Wangtrakuldee, being her best means making an impact. In drug development, that wasn’t happening fast enough.
“It takes 20 to 30 years for drugs to get from the lab to market," Wangtrakuldee said.
She shifted to a more entrepreneurial focus while doing postdoctorate work at the University of Pennsylvania from 2015 to 2017 in cancer research and development. There, while serving as a consultant for biotech start-ups at the Penn Center for Innovation, she learned a lot about product valuation, market sizing, and how to turn an idea into a business.
Her research into protective clothing for women working in labs, Wangtrakuldee said, yielded “no innovation in that market” since her accident, which took place the same year research assistant Sheharbano “Sheri” Sangji sustained second- and third-degree burns over 43 percent of her body during an organic chemistry experiment at UCLA’s Molecular Sciences Building. Sangji, 23, who was not wearing a lab coat, had been extracting from a sealed container a chemical compound that ignites quickly when exposed to air when the syringe she was using came apart and she was sprayed with the liquid. The resulting flash fire that set her clothes ablaze was fed by the synthetic sweater she wore, according to a published account. She died 18 days later.
Melissa Ludwig, who worked at Macy’s for more than 30 years as a buyer and a district vice president, among other things, said Wangtrakuldee has come up with “a solution to a real problem. It became very obvious that there was a need for this business to evolve."
Ludwig has some personal perspective as the wife of a breast cancer researcher at the Wistar Institute, a bioresearch facility in West Philadelphia. She’s also on the board of CSS Industries Inc., a consumer products company in Plymouth Meeting, and a cofounder of the Philadelphia Fashion Incubator.
As an adviser to AmorSui, Ludwig said the start-up has great potential for growth once introduced and explained to the appropriate audience.