A device designed to stop germy smartphones from infecting hospital patients with superbugs has won a Toronto startup a $500,000 US ($657,000) prize.

Put your smartphone into their invention, CleanSlate, and it will disinfect the phone using UV light in 30 seconds — while you wash your hands to prevent reinfection.

The company beat out nearly 11,000 applications to win one of six $500,000 US second-place prizes at 43North, the world's biggest business pitch competition, in Buffalo, N.Y., this past weekend. The winner of the $1 million US grand prize went to Buffalo-based ACV Auctions, an online marketplace for dealer-only car auctions.

CleanSlate 43North

CleanSlate's Oleg Baranov, Taylor Mann, Scott Mason and Graeme Clark pose with the trophy they won at 43North. They beat out nearly 11,000 applicants to win one of six $500,000 second-place prizes at the world's biggest business pitch competition. (CleanSlate)

CleanSlate CEO Taylor Mann said his company's smartphone sanitizer was inspired by a conversation with a friend who worked as a nurse in the neonatal intensive care unit at Kingston General Hospital in Kingston, Ont.

We're targeting C. difficile, MRSA, VRE – the really dangerous hospital-borne superbugs. - Taylor Mann, CleanSlate

She told him that because mobile devices can spread superbugs, they were banned in her unit. But many parents flouted the ban in order to take pictures of their critically ill babies. That put nurses in a tough position — should they crack down on parents at a difficult time in their lives or let the transgression go and potentially put the child and other patients at risk?

Mann learned that similar, and often ineffective, device bans are in place in other intensive care units, emergency rooms, and operating rooms.

The Queen's University graduate decided to put together a team of Queen's students to develop a solution at the university's Innovation Connector, which helps students bring new inventions to market.

"What our engineering team has been able to do is create something that is really safe, really intuitive and very quick," Mann said. "We're targeting C. difficile, MRSA, VRE — the really dangerous hospital-borne superbugs that these facilities are really concerned about."

CleanSlate

CleanSlate has already tested its $4,500, microwave oven-sized device at three Ontario hospitals and is taking pre-orders for the next version, which will come out next year. (CleanSlate)

CleanSlate has already tested its $4,500, microwave oven-sized device at three Ontario hospitals. Mann said it could be positioned at hospital entrances, the entrances to units such as intensive care, and at nursing stations, so staff can disinfect their devices between patients and before they leave at the end of the day so they don't bring hospital germs home to their families.

Currently, Mann said, that kind of disinfection is done using wipes containing bleach or hydrogen peroxide, which can destroy the touch-sensitivity of a smartphone's screen over time. The procedure is also time consuming, requiring the device to sit untouched for one to three minutes after being wiped down.

That's not to say your phone will be completely unscathed by the ultraviolet light produced by CleanSlate — that can cause the white plastic case or casing of some devices to yellow more quickly.

"But if you compare that with actual physical damage that hydrogen peroxide or bleach does, our damage is rather cosmetic," Mann said.

The company has already started getting pre-orders from Ontario and New York-based hospitals and clinics for its next version of the device, which it hopes to start shipping early next year.

Prettier version coming

The new version aims to be better-looking — Mann describes the current version as looking "like a 1980's fax machine." It will be slightly larger to accommodate tablets like the iPad. And it will be able to read and write RFID chips so hospital staff can track when devices were last sanitized.

CleanSlate isn't the first ultraviolet light smartphone sanitizer on the market.

Provo, Utah-based PhoneSoap makes a much smaller sanitizer targeted at consumers that doubles as a charger and sells for just $79. But Mann said it takes five minutes to do a cleaning, and targets household germs like E. coli, rather than hospital superbugs.

U.S.-based Daylight Medical has a hospital-grade sanitizer designed for tablets and smartphones that sells for $6,500. But it requires the use of special device sleeves, and Mann said CleanSlate aims to be easier to use.

The New York state-funded 43North competition is designed to generate new economic opportunities in Western New York. The prize includes not just money but perks such as mentorship and access to a program that offers freedom from state taxes for 10 years.

Mann said CleanSlate will be setting up an office in Buffalo and use the prize money to help ramp up sales and marketing in the U.S. before any larger companies come out with a competing product. In addition to the prize money, he said the company is also close to its goal of raising $1 million in seed capital.

"We need to make sure that we grow really fast … and that we're able to make it make more sense for [competitors] to buy us than to outbuild us."