An interview that will make you want to go.

The Novosan / Urimat brand of urinals came to my attention while I was, um, relieving myself into one of them at the Jumbo Shopping Center in Vantaa. Upon finishing my business I couldn’t locate a flushing button so I expected an automatic, sensor-triggered watery action that never came. I then proceeded to read the label, which indicated this was a “waterless urinal” and that it could save up to 100.000 liters of drinkable water per year. Intrigued, and also pleasantly surprised by the absence of the offending odors that inevitably assault the olfactory senses around sanitary facilities, I got in touch with Novosan. It turns out not only were these guys the first to bring this type of product into Finland, they are offering a whole range of sanitary solutions that can cut significant costs, both monetary and ecological.

Hi, there. What’s all this about?
Tommi: Hi, I’m Tommi Virkki and this is my partner Hanno Airas. We are Novosan, and we offer clean, ecological solutions for sanitary rooms, mainly B2B (business-to-business).

How did it all begin?
Hanno: While studying Business Administration in Germany I discovered the Urimat brand (which comes from Switzerland), and had excellent experiences with their urinals. When I came back to Finland in 2009, I was horrified to find most public urinals were being flushed with drinkable water, which is insane. After a few phone calls I found Urimat had no local distributors, so I then convinced Tommi that it could work very well here too.

Tommi: My background is in sports, and I studied marketing too. We met while working at Burton snowboards, where I was doing sales and he was at the warehouse. We got to know each other, and as we both have ecological and green ways of thinking, we thought it would be fun to do something together in the clean-tech sector. It was attractive to us because we wanted to offer eco-friendly, money-saving, environmentally sound solutions.

Waiting in vain for the automatic system to flush, I confess I was puzzled. Every guy knows that, at a urinal, you can’t help but smell the twenty guys that went before you. But in this case, even with no water involved, there is almost no smell.
Tommi: Ah, but you see, by taking water out of the equation we eliminate most of the bad smells (it also depends on what the guy drank or ate, of course). And this is why: when you mix water and urine, a chemical reaction takes place (it involves ammoniac, among other things). So, no water, no smells! And then there’s a very good sealing system that lets the liquid go through the trap all the way to the sewer, then closes shut to prevent any odors from coming out.

What sorcery is this! How does it work?
Tommi: It’s incredibly simple. The core of it consists of a micro-biological agent, compressed in the form a blue stone. As millions of good micro-bacteria eat up -not kill- the dirt, the stone slowly melts away. This is how micro-biological cleaning works, in fact: the bacteria eat the dirt that comes out of human beings, which is a natural process.

Tommi: He, he, yeah. And as the blue stone melts, it reaches a red band, which indicates that the trap should be changed.

How often does it have to be changed? And where do the remains of the traps go afterwards?
Tommi: It depends on use, of course, but approximately every three months. For example, at an ABC! gas station guys use the urinals five million times per month, so traps must be changed every two months or so. At other office buildings, like Finnair’s, they change them only once or twice per year. The traps are energy waste, so they go into the normal trash. Customers can dispose of them themselves, or we can do it, if we are servicing the urinals.

I’ve seen some models that show videos too.
Tommi: Yeah, those are really cool. There’s a small computer inside, and a display. We can connect USB sticks with content into them, and some of the new models even have wi-fi, so we can stream directly trailers, ads, whatever we want. It’s an awesome place to advertise, because 97% of guys (we have measured this) remember almost everything they see and read on top of the urinal. In contrast, if there’s an A4 piece of paper pasted on the wall directly on top of the urinal, they almost don’t remember any of what it said.

Who installs the urinals? Is it complicated?
Hanno: Installation depends on the area. Here in the south we have our own plumber, and partners who can do it too. And of course customers can pick their own partners, if they want.

The install is ridiculously easy. Just plug out the water pipe, because you don’t need it anymore. No clean, drinkable water passes through these urinals ever. It’s just two screws and a bracket to mount it against the wall, then connect it to the pipe that leads to the sewer. The urinals themselves are also very light, because they are made of polycarbonate.

Is there a special way to clean and service them, I imagine?
Tommi: For every urinal we sell, we go in person to meet their cleaning personnel and instruct them on how to service the units and replace the embiotic traps. They are cleaned with a micro-biological spray, which is 98.8 percent composed of natural cleaning agents (almost no chemicals).

I guess by now your job is to convince businesses to adopt this technology.
Hanno: Yes. And they are adopting it. Volumes are growing very fast: there are about 40.000 public urinals in Finland, and we have already 4.000 pieces out there. We even have them in some Silja, Viking and Eckerö ships. Last week we installed 16 in the ice-hall at Jyväskylä, and today we are sending 35 to the one in Oulu. We are really proud of that.

Why is all this interesting, money-wise and eco-wise?
Tommi: Eco-wise, each urinal can save up to a hundred-thousand litters of drinkable water per year. Money-wise, it can save up to 350 eu per urinal per year, AFTER all the costs of odor traps and maintenance.

Hanno: But there’s more: when you mix urine and water, it’s not only the smell which comes out of the combination, but also urine stones, which are the biggest problem in urinal products. Scales continue to build up in there until eventually they become so thick that they clog the pipes, so there’s a maintenance cost that is much reduced as well. For example, in Jumbo shopping center they used to have to clean the pipes for scales residue every two or three months. Since we installed our urinals there in 2010, they haven’t had to clean the pipes one single time; think of the savings! And also there’s the question of the green image: you can’t put a price tag on that. So, money savings, ecological considerations and green image, elimination of odors in lavatories… It piles up to a point at which it doesn’t make sense at all to install water-operated urinals anymore.

You guys are sexist, because this product is only for men.
(laughter) Tommi: We constantly ponder how can we help the ladies too… It’s really painful to see long lines of waiting girls outside toilets, and we do think about this all the time. But it’s a complex thing, from a hygienic and design perspective, if you think about it. Guys don’t come in contact with the urinal, and they only release urine into it. Girls have to sit down -getting in contact with it- and it’s very normal that they will contribute with something other than urine… It’s all very interesting and challenging, and there will be solutions eventually.

Novosan is ultimately a Finnish distributor of Urimat. Can you influence what is being developed in Switzerland, at all?
Hanno: It’s true that it’s not our own product, but we are a very active partner. They ask us regularly for feedback (they have actually invited us to visit them, which we haven’t had the time to do ’cause we are so busy) so we do influence what is being made over there, with our ideas.

Are you considering creating your own products, at some point?
Tommi: We think that eventually we will have our own products in our portfolio, but we don’t really need to reinvent the wheel. We just need to gather the best solutions out there, and perhaps complete them with something of our own. We not only offer Urimat products -we are generally known as “the urinal boys” because of that- but we offer products from several companies. For example, we offer a toilet paper from the Netherlands, made 100% out of recycled office paper. Even the dispenser is made of recycled plastic. We also have airators, which produce a mix of water and air at the same time. People washing their hands don’t feel any difference, but the system reduces warm water usage by 40%.

Hanno: And in case we ever invent something here, consider that we are only one of the more than forty countries in the Urimat family. If we have something interesting to offer to those partners… But we will go forward taking sensible risks. We’re not a Supercell, we are not growing with hyper-percentages. When we hire, for example, we intend to keep our people (we don’t hire for six months). We don’t have a lot of money for wild innovations, or for being into many fronts, but if something cool comes along, we will look into it. We just have to stay smart.

I came about the urinals, but you are much more than that. You are scouting for the best solutions out there.
Hanno: Precisely. Our vision is to do the whole thing, all the way from design to the implementation. We want to be with the customer during the whole life-cycle, with the best possible solutions.

Do you want to have in-house designers and architects?
Hanno: That’s costly to set up, but we’ll see where this leads us to. We are not even forty yet, so we have time to think (they laugh).

Are you doing anything else besides Novosan?
(both) No. We work full time on this.

Is the dog permanent staff too?
Hanno: Oh, yeah. ‘Veikko’ (buddy) is kinda the house mascot. He’s really sweet because he got the best out of a mix of Danish Broholmer and Bulldog. When I came back from Germany after finishing my studies, my mom was in the terminal stages of cancer and I was attempting to balance the starting of a new company with the trying to be as close to her as possible. My father didn’t want anything to do with the dog back then, but after my mom finally passed away in October 2009, he came to me and said “can I have the dog back?”. So now they are best pals.

How did you get started? Where did the money come from?
Hanno: Finnvera. They backed us up with a loan (which has already been paid in full). When we started, the minimum amount of urinals we could order was 150 units. So the attic at my father’s house in Kerava was completely taken over by the things. We had our “office / warehouse” there, next to the sauna… We made lots of phone calls, contacting all the big companies in Finland, we also launched pilot projects. We were -and are- super-active.

How many people work at Novosan nowadays?
Tommi: We are ten people, but next month we are opening the new Turku office, so we’ll be eleven by then. It’s very important to be close to our clients (we service several ABC! stations there, among others). We are also considering opening in Jyväskylä and Tampere. It’s more ecological too, as it reduces the cost of moving material around. Taking care of the customers in the sanitary field has not, until now, been much of a priority here. We are changing that.

Why would anybody object to advanced products such as this?
Hanno: Tradition, mostly. Old ways of doing things. Some people will call it nonsense, but it’s obviously not. They decide they don’t like it, perhaps because including something new into their portfolio can be scary; it takes them out of their comfort zone. We often get calls from architects and engineers, who once they see others take the risk they say, okay, now I trust this. But they are not being pro-active, they are being followers. It’s good to be on the lookout for new stuff, test it. Ask your customers if they would be willing to try something new. Put yourself at a little risk, not on a scale that may ruin you if it goes wrong, but at a position that may benefit you and improve things if it goes well.

Do you get death-threats from long-established companies?
(they laugh) Hanno: Not really. If you think of, for example, Ido, they may feel threatened. But the question is “how big are urinals in their portfolio?”. So in that sense we are not endangering their livelihood. Still, they have also bought the technology for waterless urinals. The difference with us is that we are really concentrating on that product. We understand it very well, we develop it. Other companies buy the traps from third companies, put them into their urinals, and claim “we are green” because they get LEED points. At the World Trade Center in Helsinki we’ve had to pull five Ido waterless urinals out of the wall because the cleaning personnel didn’t know how to service them, which is a shame. But that’s what makes us number one in Finland: we truly care.

This is Novosan’s website.