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Germ-Killing Brands Now Want to Sell You Germs

The world’s best-known antibacterial labels are pouring millions into probacterial health and beauty startups.

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Photo illustration: Brea Souders for Bloomberg Businessweek; Photo (bacteria): Science Source

It was a snowy week in February 2009 when David Whitlock packed up his three-bedroom apartment near Cambridge, Mass., and moved into his van. Then 54 years old, the inventor had spent all his money, almost half a million dollars, on worldwide patent filings for a newfound obsession: a type of bacteria, culled from soil samples, that he theorized would improve skin disorders, hypertension, and other health problems. “It was the most important thing I could work on,” Whitlock says. “But I knew I needed patents, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to get anyone interested.”

To make his white Dodge Grand Caravan habitable, Whitlock sawed down his queen-size bed frame and squeezed it in. He donated or abandoned most of his furniture, storing his lab equipment in a barn owned by his business partner, Walter “Hilly” Thompson. Then Whitlock drove to his former employer, cement company Titan America LLC, where he still had an office and did some consulting. Without asking permission, he pulled into the parking lot and made it home for the next four and a half years. “I found that if I stayed fully dressed and got inside two sleeping bags, I could tolerate it,” he says of the coldest winter nights.