Saving the World One Glove at a Time

Startup EcoGlove offers reusable medical gloves and a sterilization system to facilities looking to save money and curb waste

You may not have given much thought to the market for disposable medical gloves, which admittedly lacks glamour, so it might surprise you that this business is worth $2.6 billion annually, up 20% since 2001. Within five years it's expected to hit $3 billion, according to Global Industry Analysts, a San Jose (Calif.) market research firm.

More astonishing is the sheer number of gloves used and thrown away each year: 100 billion. If all those gloves were laid end to end, they would reach 30 times to the moon and back. Imagine how much space they take up each year in landfills.

Now a four-year-old startup has come up with an eco-friendly alternative. Using its own high-quality latex gloves and truck-size machines that can be installed in or near hospitals, EcoGlove proposes to wash, sterilize, and reuse medical gloves up to seven times—slashing waste by as much as 75% and cutting energy use and expense by more than half, compared with single-use products.

Started by entrepreneur Patrick Hampe, EcoGlove is counting on a confluence of trends in the health-care industry. In an era of rising costs, hospitals, laboratories, and other medical facilities are always looking for ways to save money. With cleaning and reuse, "one glove ends up doing the work of four," says John Wright, EcoGlove's business development manager. This cuts procurement costs: Although disposable gloves cost only about 5¢ a pair, the savings on the millions used each year at a hospital can really add up.

A 12-STEP PROCESS

Reuse is also environmentally beneficial, cutting back not only on the manufacturing and transportation of new single-use gloves but also on the waste stream they feed. "The energy cost required to recondition gloves is about 60% less than buying new ones," says Wright. For health practitioners looking to buff up their green credentials while reducing carbon emissions, the logic is compelling.

Still, the idea of reusing gloves that have been who-knows-where may be hard to accept. That's where EcoGlove's patented cleaning process comes into play. The company won't disclose specifics about its technology, but Wright says its 12 stages include everything from washing the inside and outside of each glove to probing for microscopic tears with an electrical charge.

Approximately 10% of the used gloves are rejected each time they go through the machine. The flops are shredded, and the rubber waste sold to third parties. The automated process—first developed in 2004 to recondition gloves used at an IBM (IBM) electronics factory in Hungary—churns out a reconditioned glove every three seconds.

Customers are already signing up. EcoGlove has penned a deal with a hospital in Penang, Malaysia, and is negotiating contracts in North America and Europe. "It's a massive market, so EcoGlove may be able to create a niche for itself," says Kavitha Ravikumar, program manager for the medical devices group at researcher Frost & Sullivan in London. "If they can keep their costs low, they stand to have some success." Privately held EcoGlove doesn't discuss its financials.

PROBLEMS WITH LATEX

To be sure, EcoGlove faces challenges. For one thing, owing to the rise of so-called superbugs such as MRSA, hospital managers increasingly favor using disposable products of all kinds to help guard against infections. To fight this trend, says Ravikumar, EcoGlove must convince hospitals and regulators that its higher-end gloves and system outperform standard disposable gloves. "Their sterilization process must be very good," she says.

At the same time, there is concern in the medical community about heightened allergic responses to latex—the material most commonly used for medical gloves. The problem is exacerbated by the rise of Asian manufacturers such as Malaysia's TopGlove and Supermax (SUPM.KL), which are undercutting Western makers with less expensive gloves that use cheaper, more allergenic latex.

This trend, however, could favor EcoGlove. To maintain profit margins, some Asian manufacturers have reduced the quality of latex in their gloves, says Global Industry Analysts. That's driving some medical practitioners to worry about safety and allergies and to switch to higher-end products. EcoGlove could benefit.

That would be welcome news to EcoGlove's backers, who have thus far invested $3 million in the firm. The company is looking to raise an additional $7.5 million, and is in talks with both European venture capitalists and government-backed companies in Asia.

How much of an impact EcoGlove will have on the industry is still anyone's guess. But in a business that's much larger than most people realize, even a modest share could power success—and produce solid returns for EcoGlove's visionary investors.