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A Partnership Formed in Biofilm

Two companies poised for rebirth and growth join forces

We’ve all seen it happen in the pool and spa industry: Someone gets a pool or hot tub — and for awhile, they are excited. They use it often. But over time, the water becomes hard to manage. They have to add more and more chemicals. Spa customers drain it, hoping that will give them a fresh start. Pool customers make multiple trips to their local pool dealer looking for a solution to their problems. Eventually, they grow frustrated.

Most normal people either accept their water is going to be difficult, or they stop using the pool or hot tub altogether. Jan de Rijk is not like most people. When the Dutchman started having issues with his hot tub, he decided to solve the problem — which meant studying bacteria for seven years — before he found a solution. de Rijk is not a chemist, nor did he have experience in the hot tub industry at that time. He just wanted clean water.

An architect by trade, de Rijk started his research in 1997. He developed his product, AquaFinesse, and started testing it in 2004. By 2006, he was selling it in Europe, first in his home country of the Netherlands. Five years ago, he brought it to the United States. Earlier this year, de Rijk sold AquaFinesse to Clearon.

Using a combination of salts, de Rijk found a way to loosen biofilm from surfaces so the sanitizer could kill the bacteria. His formula was environmentally friendly — something he’s passionate about — and made it so consumers could use less sanitizer and water over time.

“I have no education on chemical things but just used common sense,” de Rijk says. “How can you avoid the attachment of bacteria to surfaces to disturb their growth and regrowth? I managed to do that.”

Biofilm is big talk in the recreational water industry these days and people are finally appreciating what de Rijk discovered all those years ago. But it’s not only pools and spas that struggle with this slimy layer of gunk: Biofilm also affects oil and gas, agriculture, medical and many other industries. And that’s where de Rijk’s new passion lies.

“Jan’s worked really hard on the medical wound rinse,” says Bob Snodgrass, vice president of AquaFinesse. Snodgrass has been part of the company since it came to the United States. He and de Rijk have developed a close friendship. “His vision is to come up with a better solution to help save limbs and lives. His passion is to eventually deliver a wound rinse, in the meantime making all water a little safer, using less caustic chemicals to where we can lower our footprint of sanitizers and oxidizers. That’s his true story.”

While the potential applications of AquaFinesse are enormous, the company isn’t. This is where Clearon enters the picture.

“I love this green technology; I’m so passionate about it because it’s really a benefit for a better environment,” de Rijk says. “This is the goal as the industry becomes more aware that biofilm costs society billions of dollars. We want to address this with an innovative solution. But our company is too small to do that, and therefore we started talking with Clearon.”

Clearon and AquaFinesse worked together throughout the years but, in 2018, the 60-year-old Clearon brought on a new CEO, who immediately recognized the opportunity.

“My interest was piqued,” says Bryan Kitchen, president and CEO at Clearon. Kitchen comes from the chemicals industry, having worked for DOW for about 15 years. He says a large chunk of his time at DOW was in the biocides space. Clearon today manufactures highly regulated chemistries, he says. “Whenever I hear about new and innovative technologies to solve customer-specific problems, I’m really intrigued,” Kitchen adds. “Even more intrigued when I found out [AquaFinesse] is environmentally friendly. We spent a tremendous amount of time making sure the science backed up the claims being made.”

Another part of Kitchen’s vision for Clearon is to diversify across industries and product lines.

“We have all of the core competencies, not just as a dichlor and trichlor manufacturer, but also being the best supplier into the rec water market of a variety of chemistries, as well as being a premiere company globally in specialty chemicals,” Kitchen says. “When you’re one company and you participate largely in one region, that can present challenges from a risk standpoint. We’re going across markets. We’re building on that legacy in
rec water.”

Brandon Bellah joined Clearon as its vice president of sales and marketing last May. One of the reasons he came to the company was the vision that Kitchen laid out — and Kitchen himself.

“He has the most unique leadership style of anyone I’ve had the pleasure of working for,” Bellah says. He says Kitchen engages each employee monthly in what he describes as town-hall sessions. “He’ll run these back-to-back-to-back,” Bellah says. “To the point where he’s giving up weekends to make sure he hits every shift and every worker. He allows them to engage directly with him and ask questions about the company. I’ve never seen a CEO have that level of interaction. He’s not a guy hiding up in his tower — he’s the guy who’s going to go roll up his sleeves and get in there with you. I think when you’re transforming a company, you really need that style of leadership.”

Clearon’s first major new product announcement since the acquisition of AquaFinesse is the release of its Clear Gold tablet. Taking the high-quality trichlor of Clearon and patented AquaFinesse formulation in a true bilayer tablet.

“We’ve talked with a lot of people who are using it, and the thing that they love is it simplifies their life,” Bellah says. “With this tablet, you’re able to treat your pool faster, better, more effectively and the amount of stuff that this takes care of, prevents, clears up — it’s just unbelievable.” He adds that, in addition to making the life of the homeowner easier, it can also save service professionals time. “That technology allows [service pros] to become more efficient and increase productivity, which helps [them] get more value or return on [their] investment.”

The tablet controls biofilm, algae and fungi, and is also a clarifier, pH buffer, sanitizer, corrosion inhibitor and scale inhibitor. One tablet once a week treats 10,000 gallons.

“When we first took it to the EPA, the list of claims that they said we could make was staggering,” Bellah says. “The reason we called it gold is because we view this as the new gold standard.” Bellah says a number of products and technologies will follow, in recreational water and beyond.

“It’s a vision that was laid out by our CEO,” he says. “He’s done an excellent job assembling a great team that can execute this.”

Kitchen and his team are building on Clearon’s 60 years of success and on what de Rijk developed from his own dirty hot tub and tenacity. “Rarely in your life do you meet somebody like Jan,” Kitchen says. “He loves what he does, he loves his company and he loves who he works with.”

This partnership gives de Rijk, the architect cum biofilm expert, the chance to continue innovating, developing solutions for industries beyond hot tubs and pools.

“Actually, it’s an amazing story,” de Rijk says. “I experienced it, but if someone else would have told me, I would have said ‘This is a boy’s dream.’”

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