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With new toilet seat, BU and MIT engineers want to nip bathroom mishaps in the bud

At Boston University’s Engineering Product Innovation Center, Cleana cofounders Kevin Tang (right) and Max Pounanov (left) showed off their high-tech toilet seat. The seat raises or lowers itself without electricity.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

You probably don’t spend much time thinking about dirty toilet seats. But Kevin Tang has been at it since 2019.

It began when Tang, a business student at Boston University, was disgusted by the seats in a campus restroom. “We’re in this billion-dollar university where you’re paying through the nose to attend,” Tang said, “But for some reason when you go to the bathroom, all the toilets are dirty? ... There’s got to be a better way.”

And Tang says he has the answer. With a team that includes engineers from BU and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he’s launched Cleana, a company that makes a new kind of toilet seat that raises or lowers itself to avoid unwelcome splashes, or to prevent objects from falling accidentally into the bowl.

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Plumbing supply companies like Kohler and Toto have been making automatic toilet seats for years. But they cost hundreds of dollars and require electric motors and batteries, making them costly to maintain.

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Cleana (pronounced like “cleaner” with a Boston accent) wanted something simple, reliable, and reasonably cheap. So the company’s engineers created a semi-automatic seat that must first be raised or lowered by the user. This action powers up a pneumatic system with a built-in timer that waits about 30 seconds and then raises or lowers the seat, depending on the application. It’s entirely mechanical, with no microchips or batteries involved.

“It took us four years,” said Tang. “A lot of trial and error, a lot of ingenious engineering.”

Along with Tang, the Cleana team includes Andy Chang, who holds BU degrees in finance and political science; Max Pounanov, a BU-trained mechanical engineer; and Richard Li, who is completing an MIT master’s degree in mechanical engineering.

Kevin Tang and Max Pounanov in the machine shop at Boston University’s Engineering Product Innovation Center.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Cleana seats come in two versions. The one for commercial venues such as office buildings and event spaces raises itself after each use to stay clean. The home version comes with a seat as well as a lid that completely covers the bowl; that version closes itself after each use.

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“They solve different problems for different users,” Tang said.

In a crowded convention hall or sports arena, toilet seats can become filthy with splashes left behind by careless users who’ve left the seat down while urinating. A seat that raises itself out of harm’s way can eliminate most of this splash damage, Tang said. A user who needs to sit down can lower the seat with a hand or foot. It’ll stay down until they can get comfortable. Once they stand up, the internal timer starts running, and 30 seconds later, the seat rises.

For home users, the big pain point is a toilet that’s been left open. “A lot of women want the seat always to be down at the home,” said Tang, to avoid the discomfort of sitting on a cold porcelain bowl. Besides, open toilets can easily become a nasty resting place for valuable items, from loose wedding rings to fumbled cellphones. (A survey commissioned by Cleana found that 68 percent of Americans have dropped something valuable into a toilet.)

So the home version of Cleana, with a seat and lid, avoids this humiliation by remaining upright for about 30 seconds after it’s lifted. Then the pneumatic system lowers both the seat and lid. If someone’s using the seat, Cleana waits until they’re finished, then drops the lid.

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Kevin Tang, a business student at Boston University, helped launch Cleana, a company that makes a new kind of toilet seat that raises or lowers itself to avoid unwelcome splashes, or to prevent objects from falling accidentally into the bowl.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

John Barrett, executive director of ISSA, The Worldwide Cleaning Industry Association, signed on as an adviser to Cleana after the founders tracked him down on the social network LinkedIn.

“Once I heard what they were trying to do, of course it cracked me up,” Barrett said. But when he got a look at their product, Barrett decided they were onto something. “Who knew that a bunch of college students needed to disrupt the global toilet seat market?” he said, “And that’s exactly what they’re doing. ... They’re absolutely the most remarkable young people.”

Tang wouldn’t say how much funding the company has raised, but angel investor Robert Vail, head of innovation at Boston Beer Co., the maker of Sam Adams beer, has invested just under $100,000 of his own money in Cleana. Vail, who serves on the board of BU’s School of Hospitality Administration, said he likes to invest in simple, unglamorous products that solve commonplace problems. “This one solves a need dramatically,” he said.

Cleana also hopes to raise an initial round of venture capital. The company picked up $18,000 in seed money when it won BU’s 2020 New Venture Competition and a $15,000 second-place prize in the 2021 Utah Entrepreneur Challenge.

The company already has paying customers. Cleana expects to ship its first commercial-grade toilet seats by September to customers who’ve pre-ordered such as MIT, Rice University, and the Roche Bros. supermarket chain. The company hasn’t set a date for the release of its home model. But for now, the plan is to sell both at the same price of $95.

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It’s a stiff price for a toilet seat, though far less than most powered models. Besides, the Cleana is built to last. Tang’s team used 3-D printers in their dorm rooms to build prototypes, which were then raised and lowered by robotic arms to test for durability. The automatic hinge is designed for 100,000 raise-and-lower cycles, enough to last a lifetime.

It might seem odd to devote so much engineering prowess to such a lowly problem. But Tang figures it’s just common sense because the product could be so widely used.

“The toilet seat is one of those really unique things that unites everyone,” he said. “Everybody poops.”

Kevin Tang showed off the new Cleana toilet seat, which raises and lowers itself without electricity. Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him @GlobeTechLab.