Germ-Killing Brands Now Want to Sell You Germs

Germ(jərm)-Killing Brands Now Want to Sell You Germs

The world’s best-known antibacterial(ˌan(t)ēbakˈtirēəl, ˌanˌtībakˈtirēəl) labels are pouring(pôr) millions into probacterial(pro’baktēərēəl) health and beauty startups.

By Caroline(-lin,ˈkarəˌlīn) Winter

It was a snowy(ˈsnōē) week in February 2009 when David(ˈdāvid) Whitlock(wāt’läk) packed up his three-bedroom apartment near Cambridge(ˈkāmbrij), Mass.(mas), and moved into his van(van). Then 54 years old, the inventor(inˈven(t)ər) had spent all his money, almost half a million dollars, on worldwide patent(ˈpatnt) filings(ˈfīliNG) for a newfound obsession(əbˈseSHən): a type of bacteria(ˌbakˈtirēə), culled(kəl) from soil(soil) samples, that he theorized(ˈTHi(ə)rˌīz,ˈTHēəˌrīz) would improve skin disorders(disˈôrdər), hypertension(ˌhīpərˈtenSHən), 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(däj) Grand(grand) Caravan(ˈkarəˌvan) habitable(ˈhabədəb(ə)l), Whitlock sawed(sô) down his queen-size bed frame(frām) and squeezed(skwēz) it in. He donated(dōˈnāt,ˈdōnāt) or abandoned(əˈbandənd) most of his furniture(ˈfərniCHər), storing(stôr) his lab equipment(əˈkwipmənt) in a barn(bärn) owned by his business partner, Walter “Hilly(ˈhilē)” Thompson. Then Whitlock drove(drōv) to his former employer(əmˈploiər), cement(səˈment) company Titan(ˈtītn) America LLC, where he still had an office and did some consulting(kənˈsəltiNG). Without asking permission(pərˈmiSHən), he pulled into the parking lot and made it home for the next four and a half years. “I found that if I stayed(stā) fully dressed and got inside two sleeping bags, I could tolerate(ˈtäləˌrāt) it,” he says of the coldest winter nights.

Every so often, he would coat himself in a concoction(kənˈkäkSHən) made with his homegrown bacteria, a ritual(ˈriCHo͞oəl) he’d begun years earlier in the belief it would improve his overall health and all but eliminate(əˈliməˌnāt) the need to bathe(bāT͟H) or use soap(sōp). Then he’d spend the day in his office, tirelessly(ˈtī(ə)rləslē) researching microbes(ˈmīˌkrōb). “A lot of people gave me shit(SHit) for living in my car,” Whitlock says. “But it was like nothing, trivial(ˈtrivēəl).” His real problem was finding investors, a challenge exacerbated(igˈzasərˌbāt) by his autism(ˈôˌtizəm) spectrum(ˈspektrəm) disorder. To get his message out, he relied(rəˈlī) mainly on Thompson. Most everyone dismissed the duo’s(ˈd(y)o͞o-ō) idea as nuts.