Inspiring Women in Cleantech: Meet Hansa Shree, Founder of ComfortBreak

This is some text inside of a div block.
Jemima Heard
March 5, 2021

ComfortBreak are creating reusable incontinence products using sustainable materials. Disposable sanitary products generate more than 200,000 tonnes of waste each year, and conventional sanitary towels are 90% plastic. This waste ends up in landfill, in sewers, and even in our waters.

Additionally, incontinence can have severe health and social impacts for afflicted people. Urinary Incontinence - officially defined as 'the complaint of any involuntary leakage of urine' by the International Continence Society - is a disease that is much more frequent in women. It is typically caused by dysfunction of the bladder or pelvic floor muscles, which is often related to pregnancy, childbirth or menopause.

Incontinence is not a normal part of ageing or child bearing. Because of the widespread misconcentions, women often delay seeking medical attention for help managing the condition, and only a minority of women - those who have access to adequate healthcare and the knowledge to seek medical attention - receive effective therapy.

For International Women's Month, we spoke to founder Handa Shree about her innovative business and her experience as a woman in Cleantech.

ComfortBreak are a member of our Sustainable Innovation programme, but define themselves as a Healthtech business.

Hi Hansa! Tell us a little about yourself?

I’m a serial entrepreneur and DeepTech DPhil student at the University of Oxford with a vision to reduce inequity and build healthier communities.

Describe your innovation in a sentence?

With ComfortBreak, we are innovating reusable incontinence wear so that women can be healthier, at a lower cost to their wallet and the planet.

How did you discover the issue that your innovation addresses?

ComfortBreak was born from a Make-a-thon with MSF [Médecins Sans Frontières] Doctors without Borders. Over time, we pivoted extensively in response to feedback from talking to over 10 international NGOs and a delegation of the First Lady of the Democratic Republic of Congo. We especially learnt so much from talking to the women who would be using our product. 

When did you start working with the SBI team, and what have you achieved so far?

Our project aims were to test the ecological costs of arange of materials to find a novel material combination towards achieving superior functionality at lower cost. The project included testing on existing period and incontinence products, so that we had a benchmark to compare our novel product to. We started collaborating before October 2020, while the pandemic and lockdown was in full swing. Despite the challenge and multiple delays from our suppliers, we managed to achieve all project aims in full! A huge shout out to Elisa and Deborah, without whom the research would not have materialised.

What has been a challenge or an obstacle in your product development?

The greatest challenge was securing adequate lab space without the associated astronomical costs. The collaboration with SBI helped us with this and also gave us access to experts who were extremely invested in our mission to build healthier communities.

What are the benefits of working with SBI/LSBU for you?

SBI helped us to accelerate R&D by a year or more! We learnt so much from the experts working on the project and have much more rigorous data to back up our innovation.

What were you doing before you founded your company?

I was working on a different healthtech startup alongside undertaking a BSc Hons Biological Sciences degree at Imperial College London.

What is your top tip for women developing new products?

Don’t be afraid to invite yourself into a room to talk about something “taboo” - if it needs to be discussed, it must. And if you know you should be there, just show up.

How would you describe your experience as a woman in business or a woman in STEM?

I’ve been very fortunate to be endlessly inspired by my peers, of all genders, in STEM and business. I’ve grown so much from being a part of the community.

 What do you think is the most important issue that tech entrepreneurs should be addressing?

Just how unhealthy our communities can be, and are. I mean ‘unhealthy’ in every sense of the word - medically, environmentally and the social inequalities.

How do you think universities and organisations like LSBU can help further gender equality in business or tech?

I think the support helps hugely in terms of the business of course, but also adds a little extra spring in your step as you go about doing what you want to. Because suddenly, people outside friends and family are actively launching you further towards those goals.

Which woman, living or dead, would you invite to dinner and why?

This is a tough one as there are too many inspiring women for me to name one. To name just a few of the women I am in awe of, I think Joy Mangano of Miracle Mop, Whitney Wolfe Herd of Bumble, Suhani Jalota of Myna Mahila Foundation, and Reshma Shetty of Ginkgo Bioworks are incredible!

You can support ComfortBreak by connecting with Hansa via Linkedin or following her on Twitter. Find out more about the project from Dr Deborah Andrews, the supporting Academic from LSBU, here.