Entrepreneur

Oh My 'Gush': This S'pore Startup Makes Washable Paint That Cleans The Air

Gush co-founders Ryan Lim (30) and Lester Leong (28) were listed in this year’s Forbes’ 30 Under 30 Asia list along with 21 other outstanding individuals.

Since starting gush in 2017, the young duo have grown the company into a rising star in sustainable paints and advanced building materials.

Its flagship product — cair interior paint – is an odourless indoor paint that purifies the air, eliminates bacteria, regulates humidity and prevents mould.

The two had first met each other when working on an entrepreneurial project in the National University of Singapore (NUS).

During their brainstorming sessions, they found that they shared a common passion for entrepreneurship and whisky. Their project buddy friendship quickly blossomed into a business partnership.

Turning Walls Into “Passive Purifiers”

In an interview with Vulcan Post, the co-founders shared that gush was born out of personal frustrations.

Back in 2015, Singapore suffered a bad episode of haze.

Since Ryan suffered from childhood asthma and Lester has sinusitis, they were very sensitive to air pollution.

We thought it would be a good idea to find an alternative to air purifiers, which were bulky, high in energy consumption, and used filters that were expensive to replace.

The idea of using paint to purify the air came to us, and it seemed like a logical solution as we can them enable the biggest surface area in a room — the walls and ceiling — to work as a passive air purifier.

– Lester Leong, co-founder of gush

The pushed the idea forward and took three years to develop it while in school, consulting different university professors from time to time.

gush cair air-purifying paint
Gush paints / Image Credit: gush

“When we finally developed our first successful formulation, we started by painting our own homes before this caught on with our neighbours, who were impressed by how the paint viscerally has no smell whatsoever,” said Lester.

They engaged family members and friends to test the initial product, and continued to tweak and improve the formula to perfection.

After numerous testings, they finally decided to launch the product.

Gave Up Banking To Pursue Entrepreneurship

gush founders ryan lim lester leong
Lester Leong (left) and Ryan Lim (right), co-founders of gush / Image Credit: gush

The two NUS business alumni finally launched gush in 2017, but it wasn’t their first business venture.

“For both of us, it was the third project in a string of our own personal projects that we started prior to our graduation from NUS Business School,” said Lester.

For Ryan, his entrepreneurial days started as early as primary school selling game cards. His “official” startup began back in polytechnic, when he set up an online classified platform that uses online currency to buy and sell.

Lester too was not a rookie entrepreneur. He had started two other business ventures prior to gush, though he did not elaborate on them.

After graduation, Lester initially chased a path in the investment banking sector. He had secured an internship and was even offered a full-time banking job.

However, he chose to gave it all up to pursue this entrepreneurial pursuit.

“Ryan and I started researching on gush sometime prior to graduation, eventually moving on to testing out our initial prototype’s air-purifying benefits,” said Lester.

“The results were positive; we experienced a decline in our respiratory problems such as sinusitis. As such, I decided to leave banking and focus on gush full-time.”

They Didn’t Draw A Salary For A Year

The startup life wasn’t easy though.

Their first weeks involved having to obtain multiple test reports and certifications to even be able to speak with big-name customers, who did not accept a prototype and demanded heaps of documentation.

gush first prize unicon 2018
Lester Leong (2nd from right) and Ryan Lim (2nd from left) winning first prize at UNICON 2018 / Image Credit: NUS

They relied a lot on competitions and government grants for funding, and had to tighten their budget belts.

In order to validate our idea, we joined numerous entrepreneurial competitions and used the money we won to fund the project.

Our first year was a struggle. We were renting a small two- to three- room office which could accommodate four to six people at a time. After some time, we (could finally afford to move) to a bigger office to accommodate at least 10 people.

– Ryan Lim. co-founder and CEO of gush

They also didn’t draw a salary for the first half of the year, and were dipping into their savings instead.

“The early days of starting up was also punctuated with my Asian mother constantly chastising me with the ‘why don’t you go back to a normal banking job’,” said Lester, cheekily adding that she has since changed her tune and is now proud of his successes.

Entrepreneurship is all fun when there are no real-world significant consequences upon failure, such as the two I started in school. Failure just meant that I would have more time for schoolwork.

But getting gush on the road was a different ball game altogether. Launched formally after school, apart from the parental and societal pressures to return to my corporate nest, there was also the fear of missing out as my friends were rapidly ascending the corporate ladder.

– Lester Leong, co-founder of gush

Although the early days was tough, both of them are grateful to have a mentor — Paul Lim, chairman and CEO of Fidelium Group — who helped guide them through any potential pothole as the company scales.

Sharing some key business challenges, Lester said he’s fully aware that they are competing against very established incumbents in the industry.

“As such, it’s always important to keep innovating and reinventing ourselves to provide the best value for our customers.”

Older team members however, can be resistant to change. As a young founder himself, he admits that it can be an issue working with older colleagues, but acknowledges that they are more experienced than him.

“Rather than strictly enforcing hierarchy, having a growth mindset and keeping an open mind really helps sharpen business decisions through constructive debate,” he added.

Non-Toxic Paint For A Healthy Home

Image Credit: gush

According to gush, indoor air pollution can be up to three to five times worse than outdoor pollution — this is made worse by the fact that we spend an average of 80 per cent of our time indoors.

Their paint is formulated to break down volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and unpleasant odours, and can eliminate 99.9% of infection-causing bacteria such as E. Coli.

On top of that, it also regulates humidity in the air to keep homes cool, and prevents mould growth. The paint absorbs moisture when indoor humidity is high, and releases it again when humidity is low.

But how exactly does that work?

Cair’s air-purifying feature stems from a catalyst present in the formula that breaks down indoor pollutants from different sources, such as chemicals used in furniture and surface cleaners, into harmless substances like water vapour.

As it is a catalyst, it does not absorb pollutants out of the air, which is what some other paints on the market do. This means that while other paints and air-purifiers absorb airborne pollutants from the air, gush paint goes further by breaking down the pollutants so they’re truly eliminated from the air.

– Lester Leong, co-founder of gush

The paint’s chemical structure also remains unchanged from the reaction and is thus able to continue neutralising the air pollutants present within the interior spaces.

Lester boasts that their formulation is also able to function even without light, so it also works at night when we are sleeping.

They’re Not Just A Painting Company

Last year, gush raised $3 million in a pre-Series A round from Singapore mainboard-listed property group City Developments.

According to the company, the funding was used for research and development to explore new advanced building materials and branch out to other verticals beyond the building and construction industry.

He stressed that instead of just a painting company, they see themselves as an advanced materials company looking to bring innovative and sustainable solutions to better environments for their customers.

As such, they’re constantly developing their product offerings into other advanced materials. A notable one would be the foray into the anti-thermal space to help Singapore combat high temperatures.

“The anti-thermal coating is a big step for us that we hope to roll out, reducing our reliance and demand on active cooling which has a large impact on our carbon footprints,” said Lester.

With the funding, gush also plans to expand in the region where many countries such as Thailand, China, Indonesia and Malaysia are increasingly looking into ways to mitigate air pollution.

It hopes to tap the rapid development of green buildings, increasing demand for healthier indoor environments, and shift towards environmentally friendly chemicals and materials.

Painting A Bright Future

From a four-person team in the early days, the gush team has grown to over 30 people today.

The company has also painted more than 1,700 residential projects and has taken on over 50 commercial projects.

One of its notable clients is Thomson Medical, which painted most of its delivery rooms with their brand.

“As the paint is completely odourless (aside from all the other benefits it provides), there is no downtime incurred for having to air the space after the painting process, so that really helped ensure that healthcare services could be provided to their patients in a very timely manner,” said Lester.

When asked about their future business plans, Lester shared that they’re looking to build more robust R&D capabilities and increase its distribution network beyond Singapore.

“Our future business plan is focused on consumer needs and the market demand. We are constantly innovating, surveying the market and creating a holistic suite of offerings that adds value for our consumers,” said Lester.

“Ultimately, we want to find ways to secure triple wins with what we’re doing — for customers, the environment, and community.”

When asked to share a piece of business advice, Lester shared that one of the real intangibles as an entrepreneur is the ability to see the direct correlation between the effort one puts in and results that they achieve.

Personally, we believe a concrete plan is not as important as the overall vision. The vision is the animating force behind everything you do and delegate, and will then become the driving fuel and the rudder which guides decision making for those in the organisation as well.

Life usually gets in the way of concrete plans and if everything falls according to your plan, you’re an extremely fortunate person. While it’s good to have a rough plan, it’s important to understand the importance of execution and the guiding principles that the vision underpins.

– Lester Leong, co-founder of gush

Featured Image Credit: gush

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