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Innovating in Quarantine: Student Launches People-First Hand Sanitizer Line in Thailand

While in COVID-19 travel-related quarantine, Earn Khunpinit, MSIM ’20, worked to ensure disadvantaged communities had access to affordable, high-quality sanitizing solutions.
avia by Union Alcohol is producing affordable and people-first hand sanitizing gels as its first product with line extensions planned for the future. Photo: Earn Khunpinit/Instagram: aviabyunionalcohol

When the novel coronavirus plunged the world into remote collaboration and physical distancing, calling for an abbreviated on-campus semester, Earn Khunpinit, MSIM ’20, had to set her emotions aside and prepare for a return to her native Thailand. In the weeks since she returned, the frequency of flights worldwide has decreased, and additional travel measures have been implemented.

For the Tufts graduate student, that decision also meant she would spend the next 14 days in quarantine. 

Across the globe, the impacts of COVID-19 are wide-reaching. Basic goods are becoming more difficult to access and economic strain is amounting. In Thailand, these pressures are at play with an already existing wealth gap. According to data from the Bank of Thailand’s Research Institute, around 500 people own 36 percent of the country’s corporate equity. 

In the era of COVID-19, a wealth gap has prominent implications for everyday consumers — namely, unaffordable goods, and sometimes, non-standardized production of regulated goods. Understanding those factors, Earn emerged from her quarantine with a forward-thinking initiative to ensure those who were disadvantaged have access to affordable sanitizing solutions. 

During the 14 days hunkered in quarantine, Earn mobilized resources and secured Thai Food and Drug Administration approval for her line of hand sanitizing solutions: avia by Union Alcohol. 
“For me, it felt really important since I’ve noticed a lot of people are trying to take advantage of the COVID-19 situation and are selling their products at a margin of 300 to 400 percent,” said Earn.
avia by Union Alcohol is an FDA approved, moisturizing hand sanitizer with 72.4 percent V/V ethyl alcohol; it uses food-grade ethanol. According to Earn, the product’s composition was top of mind when launching it. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and FDA lay out standards for efficacy in these types of products, but she says those are not always followed by other companies. 

“The majority of the products that are being branded as ‘food-grade’ are in fact doing so under false pretenses,” said Earn. “This is both confusing and unsafe for consumers.”

It’s important to note that not all ethanol – also known as ethyl alcohol – is the same. Yet, not all consumers know the difference. 

“Regulations in Thailand require ethanol manufacturers who produce and sell industrial grade or synthetic ethanol to denature the product in one of two ways: coloring it or adding regurgitating substances such as denatonium benzoate and tertiary butyl alcohol (TBA). This is so consumers can differentiate the grades,” said Earn. “The difference between food-grade or pharmaceutical-grade ethanol and industrial grade and synthetic ethanol is that the former is regulated and manufactured to be safe for consumer use while the latter is meant to be used as fuel and not for people.”

One 30 mL bottle of avia hand sanitizer sells for 50 Baht, or around USD 1.56. She also has a 500 mL variation selling for 199 Baht (USD 6.21) and options in between. To start manufacturing hand sanitizer, Earn had to submit regulatory paperwork detailing specifics like product name, brand name and type of bottling to the Thai FDA online. Then, an FDA representative had to “approve and validate that the clean room being used to manufacture our products is safe and within their standards.”

While waiting for the FDA’s response, Earn conducted market research and looked into purchasing bottles, machinery, and packaging so that once FDA approval was finalized, she could immediately start distributing the products.

Backed with a foundation of courses from the MS in Innovation and Management program like New Product Innovation and Marketing, Earn is looking to make a lasting impact with the development of avia. She has even partnered with individuals to donate products and help with promotional efforts.

“For one, I hope that my effort will create consumer awareness and allow Thais to understand the different types and quality of products currently available on the market — knowing what is safe and what is not,” Earn said. “Additionally, my goal is to increase the quantity of quality products within the market so that people are actually paying for products that protect them and do what it claims to do.”

Earn is planning a line extension in the future to include rubbing alcohol. Since starting her initiative, she has landed a deal selling products to a hospital. 

As it goes, problems are often highlighted by challenging circumstances and innovative ideas, in turn, are born. While the world grapples with the impact of COVID-19, Earn never imagined the remainder of her MSIM experience unfolding like this.

“I was definitely in shock. I didn’t think that it would come to this extent that fast. I’ve lived and been in Boston all of my college career. To leave so suddenly and without the ability to prepare myself emotionally was very difficult,” Earn shared. “However, given the current situation, I’m very glad I came home when I did because I now see that I can make more of an impact here.”