POCATELLO — Former Bannock County Clerk Robert Poleki believes he’s starting to reap the rewards of having faith in his own innovation — a self-cleaning toilet seat he calls the Washie.
The Idaho Department of Commerce recently awarded $83,000 through its Idaho Global Entrepreneurial Mission grant program to fund Idaho State University research in support of Washie.
Furthermore, Poleki said several airports are interested in trying out Washie. For example, he and his business partner, Dane Simmons, are in discussions with officials interested in using the invention at Salt Lake City International Airport, which is undergoing a major renovation.
“We’re considering ourselves the solution to dirty toilet seats in public restrooms,” said Poleki, who opted against seeking re-election to his county office in November to focus his full attention on commercializing Washie.
Washie was the sole project funded among six presentations made to the Idaho Department of Commerce about two weeks ago. The IGEM grant funds studies by university researchers who partner with private businesses to help bring their products to market.
Poleki, Simmons and Anish Sebastian, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at ISU, presented the concept for the IGEM grant together. Scott Snyder, ISU’s interim vice president for research, helped prepare them for their presentation.
“There is a lot of research done in the academic environment, but we don’t always see an end product,” Sebastian.
The idea for Washie was born several years ago, when Poleki saved his son from using a messy toilet in a public restroom. Poleki wiped the seat down with hand soap and a paper towel.
“He won’t sit on a paper toilet seat cover,” Poleki said. “No kid will.”
Washie is powered by six AA batteries and can replace any conventional toilet seat. It emits a blast of antiseptic foam from the top of the seat when the user’s hand waves in front of a sensor. The user is tasked with tearing off a piece of toilet paper and wiping the seat with the foam.
“Theres’s nothing like in the world. There hasn’t been an innovation to the toilet seat in 100 years,” said Simmons, a local entrepreneur who has invested in several start-up companies, especially in surgical sales.
In addition to having a “cool factor” Simmons said the seat will give peace of mind to people who have to use public toilets.
Sebastian and his students will commence research on Washie this summer, studying its hinges, motor, pump, battery system and other components to make certain it works as advertised. Sebastian hopes to develop a lithium rechargeable battery unit to replace the AAs.
For the time being, Washie uses an eco-friendly, natural sanitizer produced in Utah. However, Josh Pak, chairman of ISU’s chemistry department, will work with IGEM grant funding to develop a Washie-specific sanitizer that kills more germs.
Poleki said his company will use a similar business model as the razor blade industry, selling cartridges for customers to refill their Washie seats. The cost of using Washie’s should be equivalent to supplying paper toilet seat covers, he said.
Poleki believes it will be invaluable to have neutral third-party scientific data verifying that Washie works as advertised. He and Simmons are both ISU graduates and are also pleased by the chance to work with their alma mater.
The invention nearly made a splash on the ABC reality TV program “Shark Tank.” Poleki was a finalist on the program but ultimately didn’t make the cut.
In addition to the interest from the Salt Lake airport, Poleki said he returned about a week ago from the Dallas Fort Worth International Airport, where vice presidents of customer experience discussed the possibility of testing Washie on a pilot basis in a single terminal.
“We’ll be in Canada next month,” Poleki said. “Some huge airports in Canada are interested, as well.”