Mechanical engineering alumna named to Forbes' 30 Under 30 in Science

A passion for humanitarian causes and engineering led Birgitt Boschitsch to co-found spotLESS Materials


By Erin Cassidy Hendrick

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — In the year since she graduated with her doctorate in mechanical engineering, Penn State alumna Birgitt Boschitsch’s life has been a nonstop whirlwind as the co-founder and chief executive officer of the startup spotLESS Materials.

But she momentarily stopped in her tracks when Forbes magazine announced she was honored as a 30 Under 30 in Science for 2020.

“It was amazing news,” she said. “I never fully considered being an entrepreneur in the past; I was just passionate about solving technical problems. But as an engineer, I care deeply about technology doing good things for society and I realized I could accomplish that.”

An annual recognition of young thought leaders who have the potential to impact the world with their technical achievements, the theme of Forbes’ 2020 honorific was “Redefining Impossible From Rockets To Molecules.”

As Forbes wrote, “Impossible doesn’t really register with the members of this year’s 30 Under 30 In Science list, many of whom are upending decades of ideas, research and methods in their respective fields.”

By fusing her academic perspective with an entrepreneurial mindset, Boschitsch is excited to exemplify that notion. She launched spotLESS Materials in 2018 with her adviser, Tak-Sing Wong, the Wormley Early Career Professor of Engineering and associate professor of mechanical engineering and biomedical engineering.

“Birgitt is on an exciting upward trajectory to do many great things that will impact our lives,” said Wong, who nominated Boschitsch for the award.

When the team began working together in the Wong Laboratory for Nature Inspired Engineering, housed within the Department of Mechanical Engineering and the Materials Research Institute, their academic research focused on utilizing nature-inspired concepts to design functional and adaptive interfacial materials that can provide solutions to critical engineering challenges.

At their startup, Wong and his former graduate students aim to solve “sticky” problems all over the world by developing and marketing high-tech coatings. Their first product launch was a bio-inspired, liquid, sludge- and bacteria-repellent coating that can essentially make a toilet self-cleaning.

“We want our company to be the global leader for easy cleaning or self-cleaning surfaces, and to make materials with a positive impact on water sustainability and sanitation,” Boschitsch said. “While we obviously want to be a profitable company, we also want to use this tech to address problems facing humanity.”

While the product can be used as a convenience to many, by limiting the time spent cleaning bathroom surfaces, the coating also dramatically reduces the water needed to flush a conventional toilet, potentially up to 50%. As many regions in the world face water scarcity, the team at spotLESS Materials is hopeful their product can help communities alleviate this issue, according to Boschitsch.

Boschitsch’s dissertation research was built on similar themes, creating innovative ways to enhance global sanitation. Alongside Wong, she developed a self-healing membrane that acts as a reverse filter. By blocking small particles and letting large ones pass through, the film responds to the passing particle’s kinetic energy, or movement, rather than size. While the applications of this technology are potentially widespread, Boschitsch envisioned another application that could directly impact developing regions.

"One billion people in the world still openly defecate for many reasons, one being that latrines smell bad," she said.

Theoretically, if applied to a waterless toilet, human waste would pass through, while the odor particles with their lower kinetic energy, would be trapped underneath the membrane.

“This could help address problems related to foul odors,” said Boschitsch.

Enriching the quality and safety of human life is a mindset that Boschitsch has always kept in the forefront of her work.

“As a person, I really care about using technology to do good things,” she said. “Obviously, we want our business to be successful, but that is to support our ultimate goal of helping people.”

Wong said Boschitsch is well on her way.

“I strongly believe that her research on the self-healing reverse filter and her present entrepreneurship work with spotLESS Materials are going to make a big, positive impact to the world,” he said.

The more she ventures into entrepreneurship, Boschitsch said her academic experience helped her tackle the many issues that appear while piloting a startup. Whether it is experimenting to create new products in the lab or navigating the legalities of copyrights and trademarks, her education and experience at Penn State has prepared her for success.

“Through the Ph.D. process, I got the mentality that no problem is insurmountable,” she said. “We weren’t content to leave our work in academia; we have a vision to bring this technology to people, and we weren’t afraid to take that risk.”

With continued support in Penn State’s entrepreneurial ecosystem through the Ben Franklin Technology Partners’ TechCelerator, the company is thriving. The company also has garnered funding from the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, the Office of Naval Research, the Rice Business Plan Competition and Y-Combinator.

Further emboldened with this new honor from Forbes, the spotLESS CEO said this is only the beginning.

“We want to show the world you can be commercially successful and socially responsible,” Boschitsch said. “Scientists have an extra opportunity to do that with new technology.”


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Megan Lakatos

“We want to show the world you can be commercially successful and socially responsible. Scientists have an extra opportunity to do that with new technology.”
—Birgitt Boschitsch