Startup Success: Liquipel Waterproofs Your Devices

Two high school friends discovered a common quest: to waterproof electronic devices. Their startup has since raised $10 million in venture capital and expanded internationally.
June 11, 2013

A wet iPhone typically means a frantic online search for remedies, followed by pulling out the hairdryer, hunting for silica packets or ripping open a bag of white rice. If none of that does the trick, you’ll be shelling out upward of $400 for a replacement. But not if Kevin Bacon and Danny McPhail have anything to say about it. They’re the cofounders of Liquipel, a Santa Ana, California-based company that uses nanotechnology to make your electronic devices liquid-repellent.

The two graduated high school together in Salt Lake City, went their separate ways, but then independently of the other discovered a high-quality protective film for electronics and were reacquainted again when both started distributing the product. There was a brief dispute over sales territory, but then the two came together over their common interest in finding new ways to protect electronic devices. “The electronics inside the devices had come so far,” Bacon says, “but the way we protect them hasn’t.”   

Exploring New Technology

“I had come across a YouTube video that showed a radio playing under water,” Bacon says. The video featured a new protective technology they found intriguing, so McPhail began doing research. The two, neither of whom have technical backgrounds, began searching the globe for material scientists and engineers who could help them develop a water repellent process. “We were going for something splash repellent,” Bacon says, “but we found that we could build something that withstands heavy showers and light submersions.” It took two years, but what finally emerged was a machine that creates a vacuum, and then injects super-hydrophobic particles into devices like smartphones and tablets. Plasma then binds the formulation into the devices’ external components, and creates a microscopic air gap between the device and liquid.

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When they were sure their technology was ready to be commercialized, Bacon and McPhail had the machinery, which was developed in Europe, delivered to Santa Ana. “We had our website built and we started with a soft launch,” says Bacon, who came up with the name Liquipel. But the real product launch was last January at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. “Overnight, it was recognized as one of the top products at CES,” Bacon says. 

A Stake in the Ground

Since then, the company has won the prestigious Edison Award for innovation, has improved its technology, and reduced the size of its machines from 6,000 pounds to 400 pounds. The company also landed $10 million in venture capital last year. But the partners still have some major hurdles to clear.

For now, the Liquipel process, which takes 40 minutes, costs $60 and requires consumers to send their devices to the company. Factor in the cost of overnight shipping both ways, and it’s neither cheap nor convenient. “We know it’s not the ideal model, but we wanted to get our stake in the ground,” Bacon says. Liquipel also has some competitors— P2i and HzO—nipping at its heels.

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But only Liquipel seems to be positioning itself as a recognizable consumer brand. Bacon says the company has already treated tens of thousands of phones in the U.S. and licenses its technology to retailers in Australia and Saudi Arabia that pre-treat their mobile phone inventory with Liquipel. In total, Bacon says, the company has machines in 14 countries and will deploy more to U.S. mobile phone retailers within six to nine months. A new turnkey product also allows retailers, distributors and kiosk operators to treat devices onsite for consumers while they wait. “We’re trying to create an ecosystem,” Bacon says. “We want the Liquipel name to be like Gor-Tex or Kleenex.”

Beyond Mobile Devices

Eventually, Bacon and McPhail are hoping that Liquipel’s business model will tap into the B2B market as well, with manufacturers treating devices with the company’s “WaterSafe” technology before they get into consumers’ hands. And their vision extends beyond mobile phones, tablets and MP3 players. In February, Liquipel inked a deal with headphone manufacturer JayBird to make its Bluetooth headphones sweat-proof. “They’ve told us that sales increased threefold,” Bacon says. If the company can continue to negotiate such high-profile partnerships while at the same time establishing brand cache directly with consumers, that may give Liquipel an edge over its competitors.

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Photos from top: iStockphoto, Courtesy of Liquipel