Soon after the pandemic hit, Beau Wangtrakuldee sprang into action. Like many businesses at the time, her Philly-based company AmorSui, which manufactures and sells chemical-resistant, antimicrobial workwear for women in STEM, was suffering.
“We put our heads together to figure out how to use our resources" — a fabric manufacturer and a mobile app — to solve one of the pandemic’s biggest challenges: the shortage of essential medical PPE or personal protective equipment, Wangtrakuldee recalled.
“A lot of health-care professionals had to reuse disposable product that was supposed to be for onetime use,” said Wangtrakuldee, who came to the United States from Thailand in 2010 to pursue her chemistry doctorate at Northern Illinois University and landed in Philadelphia in 2015 as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania. “Not only could they get infected, but they could transmit to patients.”
Her solution was to make lab coats, pants and dresses made of reusable, eco-friendly fabrics that protect wearers and offer five sizes (XS-XL), instead of the typical one-size-fits-all. So women with smaller frames would feel more comfortable. She also created an app to track the garment’s uses and when it should be cleaned.
Starting in the fall of 2018, her firm has grown to employ 20 full- and part-time employees and is projected to reach $1 million in sales this year. Her garments are made in factories in Allentown and Brooklyn, and all products are sourced and made within the U.S. by women- or minority-led vendors and companies.
The problem her firm solves is this: Disposable PPE was creating excessive waste — six times the typical amount, she said. Her goal was to encourage the use of reusable PPE that would be more comfortable, save money, and keep health-care workers safe.
“We created an app with a detection system that marks how many times a gown is washed,” she said. “All gowns are effective for at least 100 washes and when it reaches 85 or 90 percent, it will send a notification to the hospital admin so it can be purchased again. You would never run out of PPE.”
Whether hospitals wash the PPE in-house or work with a laundering partner, they will save financially, she said. A disposable gown costs as much as $9 for a onetime use compared with AmorSui’s reusable gowns at $80, or 80 cents a use. Add $1 or $2 for cleaning and at less than $3 a use, the financial savings are considerable. The amount of waste saved is even greater.
“On average, we help hospitals save 50% in costs and reduce 65% in medical waste from disposable PPE products,” she said. The PPE is more comfortable than its disposable counterpart.
By the end of the year, AmorSui will launch a pilot program of the reusable surgical gowns with its PPE management wash tracking app with one of New Jersey’s large health-care systems. Though she isn’t ready to announce the name, its main focus is on sustainability, she said. After successful implementation in one hospital, the partnership will expand to include five other hospitals in the system in 2021.
Up until now, AmorSui’s clientele has been mostly women working in labs. “We had planned to expand to health-care workers later, but COVID-19 pushed us to pivot much faster,” Wangtrakuldee said. “There’s not enough product in the market currently that’s safe for women, fits them well, and makes us feel feminine. In addition, there isn’t clothing for women in STEM to transition into a leadership role, if you have to go from the lab area to the boardroom.”
It was Wangtrakuldee’s personal experience that led to the creation of AmorSui, which means ‘love yourself’ in Latin.
“I was working in the lab and had a chemical spill accident and the lab coat did not protect me and I got burned,” she recalled of that day in 2014. After the accident, she searched for comfortable women’s clothing in her size that would better protect her. Nothing existed.
She started a crowdfunding campaign in 2018 that raised about $15,000 and began creating and marketing a blouse, pant and dress on the website https://www.amorsuiclothing.com. Priced from $90 to $180, the products are named after female scientists, including Marie Curie, Rosalind Franklin, and Rebecca Crumpler. Revenues reached about $20,000 that year.
“Last year, we expanded our offerings to wholesale sales, and university and company labs, and our revenue tripled to about $70,000,” she said. “This year, our month-to-month sales increased about 20% after stalling in March. We are looking at projections of about $1 million.”
The company has added face masks to the line and will soon add a hijab, named Rufaida Al-Aslamia after the first female surgeon and nurse in the Islamic world. Made from an environmentally sustainable lyocell fabric blend, the hijab is both fire-resistant and antimicrobial with moisture wicking capabilities to keep the wearer cool but protected.
“Whatever you are wearing that might expose you to fire makes you vulnerable,” said Imke Schroeder, project research manager of the UC Center for Laboratory Safety at UCLA, who believes the hijab will do more than just keep women safe. “The hijab might encourage women to move into science if they get this type of attention, that we are really interested in keeping you safe. ‘We see you and we hear you.’”
Dhruvi Shah, a research assistant at Thomas Jefferson University, where she is earning her master’s degree in public health, appreciates the brand’s aesthetics. Shah, who is also a lifestyle blogger interested in merging fashion with science, discovered AmorSui on Instagram.
“As an undergraduate, I was a bio major and when you worked in labs, it was hard to find clothing that was feminine, aesthetically pleasing, but at the same time inclusive of all these resistant materials,” Shah said.
Wangtrakuldee is confident that the pilot program with the reusable PPE and wash tracking app will be successful, leading Philadelphia hospitals to use the garments as soon as next year. “Because of the cost savings and sustainability of reusable product, hospitals will enjoy using these products, especially when it’s been proven that health-care professionals think this is more comfortable and better in terms of protection,” she said.