FreshCheck picks up speed with launch of hygiene testing swab


FreshCheck co-founders Alex Bond and John Simpson

FreshCheck co-founders Alex Bond and John Simpson

In addition to launching a new product, the Imperial startup has raised an additional £400,000 and moved into a new lab in the White City Incubator.

The science behind Imperial startup FreshCheck is elegant and deceptively simple: a dye that changes colour in the presence of bacteria. When the company was founded in 2015 it had several commercial applications in mind, from hygiene testing to healthcare. Yet its journey to the market has not been straightforward, with pivots and adjustments along the way to accommodate customer feedback and the COVID-19 pandemic.

But now everything is coming together. FreshCheck has a new product on the market: a hygiene testing swab for surfaces in the food and hospitality industry. It has raised an additional £400,000 in investment, bringing its total funding to £2 million. And it is moving into its own lab in Imperial’s new White City Incubator.

This investment allows us to start selling the product, to prove that the market is there, and to keep our research department running. Alex Bond FreshCheck

“This investment will fund us for the next year,” says Alex Bond, co-founder and Chief Executive of FreshCheck. “It allows us to start selling the product, to prove that the market is there, and to keep our research department running.”

The funding represents a vote of confidence from the experienced investors who backed the company’s seed round in 2021. “They believe in us, and have been impressed enough by what we have done over the past year-and-a-half to follow on.”

There are also more innovations to come. “The core colour change works really nicely in a swab, but it also works well in a hand wipe, and it would work well in a smart bandage,” says Mr Bond. “So, there are lots of different applications where we can use this technology.”

Finding a niche

FreshCheck was founded by Dr John Simpson and Alex Bond to commercialise work they did while undertaking their PhD research, carried out in the Institute of Chemical Biology. Their first idea was to put the bacteria-detecting dye into a food label, which would then change colour when the product inside the packaging was unsafe to eat. The labels worked, but the profit margin was so thin that they were not commercially viable.

So the company pivoted to address hygiene in the food preparation sector, settling on a spray as the simplest way of delivering the indicator liquid to the surface to be checked. Tested and launched in 2019, the product found some customers, but did not take off in the way FreshCheck had hoped.

FreshCheck co-founders in the lab
FreshCheck developed in one of the White City Incubator's shared labs.

Some users found the results difficult to interpret, particularly on dark surfaces, but the main problem was habit: they were used to using swabs, even if a cumbersome and expensive reader was then needed to get the results. “So, we decided to minimise behaviour change,” Mr Bond recalls. “We put our colour-change liquid into a swab, so that people could do what they are already doing, but in a more cost-effective way.”

With COVID-19 raising the profile of surface hygiene, FreshCheck completed a £625,000 seed round in 2021 to develop the new swab and bring it to the market. This included a £250,000 contribution from the Imperial College Innovation Fund, which invests in startups with a strong connection to the College.

Perfecting the swab

FreshCheck’s skills are in chemical engineering, so in order to perfect the swab the company sought out expert collaborators to help with the design. Supported by a £15,000 Innovate UK grant, it worked with the Manufacturing Technology Centre to perfect the two-tube arrangement that would make it easy to bring the swab and the colour-change liquid together.

FreshCheck swabThen Rutland Plastics took up the baton. “We worked with them to refine everything,” Mr Bond says. “The difference between a cap that is easy to put on or hard to take off requires fractions of millimetres to be shaved off or added.” The result is a swab that is cost-effective to produce at the scale FreshCheck requires to enter the market.

The swab comes with a complete hygiene verification system, developed in collaboration with EH Software Solutions. “We have an app that allows you to take a picture of the result and record it digitally,” Mr Bond says. “Then you can trend data, identify areas of risk, and take the correct action, either to improve cleaning procedures or move to more serious levels of testing.”

This whole process was informed by market testing. “We worked extensively with some of the top ten food manufacturers, to make sure our swab would work as a replacement for existing products,” Dr Bond says. “But we also worked with smaller companies, such as a pizza restaurant in London, to make sure it would be of interest to people not working with the existing technology."

Looking forward

Meanwhile, work is already under way on FreshCheck’s next product, a hygiene testing wipe that will provide an option for settings where cost is highly constrained. “We are working on this with international non-woven companies, who have taken some of our technology, turned it into wipes,” Mr Bond says. “And we are currently testing the sensitivity of the first batch.”

We gain a lot from being in the Incubator, but we can also give something back. Alex Bond FreshCheck

This month the company has also moved from one of the shared labs in the old White City Incubator to a lab of its own in the new Incubator. This makes sense for the company, since it is still innovating, but it also hopes to act as a mentor to its younger neighbours.

“We gain a lot from being in the Incubator, but we can also give something back,” says Mr Bond. “It’s nice to feel your expertise can potentially be of use to someone further down the line.”


Ian Mundell

Ian Mundell


Alumni, Bacteria, Enterprise, Entrepreneurship
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