Deep Bajaj, the 38-year-old founder of Sirona Hygiene, a Delhi-based homegrown femtech startup seeking to break the stigma around intimate female hygiene, started this venture as a means of finding solutions to the problems his wife, mother and millions of other Indian women face.
(Above photo of Sirona Hygiene Founder Deep Bajaj with his company’s menstrual cup and PeeBuddy device)
Since its inception in 2015, Sirona has come up with a variety of innovative products like PeeBuddy (India’s first Stand and Pee/female urination device), menstrual cups, washes and sterilizers for these cups, India’s first herbal period pain relief patches, anti-chafing rash cream, coloured biodegradable sanitary pads and oxo-degradable disposal bags, amongst others.
“Initially, people said that Indian women wouldn’t stand and pee. So far, we have sold 3 million units of PeeBuddy, for which we have acquired a design patent. When we started talking about period pain patches, the thought was Indian women were too used to hot water bottles and painkillers. Thus far, we have sold 4,00,000 packs of herbal period pain patches. When you look at menstrual cups, we will soon hit a milestone of 1 million units, thereby becoming India’s highest seller. Although menstrual cups aren’t our idea, the washes and sterilizers we have made for them are our innovation,” Deep says in a conversation with The Better India.
He adds, “As a startup, we have turned profitable for the last three years, growing 100% year on year.”
Personal Journey Which Became a Business Mission
Before venturing into disrupting the female hygiene market, Deep had joined his wife, Rashi, a couture carpet designer, in the business of handmade carpets. Running this venture while Rashi was undergoing the final trimester of her pregnancy had become a difficult task, particularly when travelling for business meetings. It had become very difficult for her to step out.
“Unfortunately, we had one miscarriage before. But given the nature of our venture, we had to travel. On one occasion, even though I could barely afford it, I booked her a business class ticket from Delhi to Dubai for a business meeting. Despite the other luxuries on offer, she had to use a common toilet, which would often get soiled, thus making it difficult for her to use. Similarly, on our travels, my mother, who was suffering from arthritis, would also struggle to use conventional toilets,” recalls Deep.
However, it wasn’t until 2013, when Deep first got the idea of PeeBuddy, the stand and pee device. On a road trip with his wife from Delhi to Jaipur alongside four other couples, Deep noticed that while the men had no problem drinking whatever they wanted, the women were rationing their intake given the lack of clean toilets along the highway. Even the more popular eateries along the Delhi-Jaipur highway didn’t have clean toilets.
“When we were discussing this issue, a friend’s wife spoke of how she had seen a contraption in Europe that would allow women to stand and pee. This conversation sparked an idea in my mind given the lack of clean public toilets for women. If you have any kind of medical condition like pregnancy or arthritis, even clean toilets don’t help because they’re not adequately built,” Deep says.
He adds, “I didn’t want to create a make-shift contraption, but something that gives Indian women this flexibility to stand and pee.”
So, along with a couple of friends, he designed the first shape of the product. In 2015, he registered Sirona Hygiene with a mission to take on all unaddressed intimate and menstrual hygiene issues faced by women.
While creating PeeBuddy, Deep would often ask Rashi what other such problems women face that aren’t talked about openly. For example, when it came to severe period pain, which his wife would suffer from every month, taking a hot water bottle to the workplace wasn’t an option. Painkillers have side effects. After speaking to a couple of his friends, one of whom runs a company manufacturing Ayurvedic products, and extensive due diligence, he came up with India’s first herbal period pain relief patch to solve that problem.
“I’m also very finicky about the disposal of products like sanitary pads, baby diapers, etc, and came up with disposal bags. Customers began liking the kinds of products we made, and in fact, one story for us went viral early on and we garnered a lot of appreciation for PeeBuddy,” he says.
Re-imagining the Female Intimate Hygiene Industry
Early on, what Deep noticed while working in this space is that while most industries have undergone significant changes in the last few decades, when it comes to solutions for female hygiene there was little to no advancement in India.
“That’s why at Sirona we look at all unaddressed and ‘taboo’ or intimate and menstrual hygiene issues and solve them with unique products. For instance for menstrual flow, if your pads are not working, use menstrual cups. We have moved a million women to Sirona menstrual cups, thereby saving on tonnes of non-degradable waste (sanitary pads) from going to landfills. From puberty to menopause, we have identified solutions for my family and everybody else,” claims Deep.
“Compared to other players in the market, we were the first ones to identify these needs. Even today, we offer incremental or complete innovation in the space of female hygiene. We are not in a race with others who have launched similar products. There are 400 million women in India above the age of 14 and menstruating, and these solutions have to reach them,” he adds.
As far as the manufacturing process is concerned, Sirona’s objective is to keep it as sustainable as possible in terms of the kind of ingredients and packaging material they are using.
For example, they claim that the natural intimate wash (for your intimate parts) Sirona came up with has no parabens and sulphates. However, they haven’t come up with a solution for plastic bottle packaging. “We take care of our plastic bottles through our established recycling process. We subscribe to EPR (extended producer responsibility). If we source ‘X’ amount of plastic, we recycle the same amount of plastic through our partners spread across India today. In terms of packaging, earlier we would use outer protection layers, which we have moved away from. Our boxes, wherever possible, have been converted to cardboard. Meanwhile, we only work with vendors, whose sourcing can be backtracked to the point of origin.” he claims.
In terms of manufacturing, PeeBuddy is a cardboard funnel that is made in India. Their herbal period pain relief patches are created on ayurvedic proprietary formulations and made in India. Their intimate washes, India’s first natural rash cream for women in their intimate parts, are all made in India. To make menstrual cups, they are moving their facility from China to India.
Expanding the Market
Sirona is an online first brand and receives orders from all over India. On average they ship about 1 lakh orders every month for their products.
“As a result of COVID, many people living in Tier 1 cities have gone back home to smaller towns. Before COVID, about 70% of orders came from Tier 1 cities, and 30% from the rest. Now, that’s changed to 55% from Tier 1 cities and 45% in Tier 2 or Tier 3 cities and small towns,” he says.
For the first couple of years, Sirona was a bootstrapped venture, following which they raised a few small rounds of funding before becoming a profitable entity. Today, they are backed by a variety of awards like the National Entrepreneurship Award from the Government of India, the PhD Chamber of Commerce ‘Award for Excellence and the Economic Times ‘Startup of the Year’ (Social Enterprise), amongst others. From just two employees starting out, they are today a team of 100.
Their objective moving forward is to address any intimate issues that don’t have any solutions right now from puberty to menopause.
“One such solution we are coming up with is a variety of razors for hair removal in intimate areas. In 10 years, if there are challenges that Indian women face in this space, and if we are not the ones coming up with the solutions, I would consider it a failure. We want to disrupt, push, bring out products, start conversations and break the taboo. The biggest challenge of this space is that people don’t talk about these things openly. If we can start bigger conversations around these issues by challenging the status quo, we would have done our part,” he says.
Thankfully, there are other players in this space now, and today at least there is a dialogue on some of these issues. “I have two girls, and by the time they grow up, I hope to solve most of these issues,” he says.
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)