Harvard Medical Student’s Innovation: Disinfection You Can See

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In 2014, three undergrads at Columbia University had a crazy idea for a hackathon challenge: colorize bleach so health-care workers could spot missed areas on the surfaces and personal protective equipment they are trying to disinfect. Five years later, the result is a product called Highlight®, along with $6 million in venture capital funding, pilot studies at major medical centers, data showing efficacy and high satisfaction among health-care workers, and proof of clinical utility from Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders who used this bleach additive to combat the Ebola virus.1-6

Kevin Tyan

Kevin Tyan

Kevin Tyan, Co-Founder and Chief Scientific Officer of Kinnos (, is now a second-year medical student at Harvard University. He came to the attention of The ASCO Post when he presented an unrelated study at the 2020 ASCO-SITC Clinical Immuno-Oncology Symposium.7 Mr. Tyan is now balancing the commitments of medical school with the challenge of moving this product forward into widespread use in health-care settings where nosocomial infections are a concern.

“It feels especially meaningful to me right now to be both a medical student (being there for my patients) and to have worked on Kinnos for 5 years, with all that effort culminating into making an impact today,” Mr. Tyan said in an interview.

He believes the product he helped to create could curb the spread of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), although it was conceived and tested long before the pandemic. “The timing [of the series A investment] was fortunate. We were already slated to receive this round of funding before the coronavirus outbreak. Now that we have it, Kinnos is well positioned to make a difference,” he told The ASCO Post.

Innovative Product

Human error is responsible for most environmental cleaning failures. Disinfectants are the first line of defense but are often used incorrectly, because they are transparent (making it easy to miss spots), form droplets on surfaces (leaving gaps in coverage), and require a specific contact time to kill (the wait time is difficult to enforce). This patented colored additive in powder form is mixed with bleach at the point of care. The product spreads and adheres consistently across surfaces and appears blue upon contact, with the color fading completely away after the appropriate contact time. The bleach additive and its developers have received numerous awards for innovation.

“Studies have shown that less than 50% of critical surfaces are thoroughly cleaned in health-care settings and that 1 in 25 hospitalized patients contracts infections in the hospital. Our product provides real-time feedback, so staff can see how completely they have covered surfaces,” Mr. Tyan explained.

The Three Wunderkinds

The company was cofounded by Mr. Tyan, a premed student at the time, and his Columbia pals: former roommate Jason Kang and premed colleague Katherine Jin (who decided to forgo medical school after tapping into her entrepreneurial spirit). Mr. Tyan is Chief Scientific Officer, Mr. Kang is Chief Executive Officer, and Ms. Jin is Chief Technology Officer. The oldest of these wunderkinds is just 26, but the group has surrounded itself with a stellar cast of supporting characters in science, technology, and business.

According to Mr. Tyan, the company’s name reflects the aim of its co-founders, joining two concepts they consider important: Kin (life, longevity, “what we want to protect”) and Nos (short for diagnosis and prevention of infectious disease). “Kinnos was founded out of a social humanitarian mission to build up capacity [for infection prevention] in an outbreak setting and empower workers to protect themselves,” said Mr. Tyan. Columbia’s hackathon challenge was an attempt to address the Ebola problem through novel interventions.

“We never intended to derive meaningful revenue from that original humanitarian mission. However, we’ve since realized that poor disinfection is a problem every single day, not just during an outbreak,” he added.

Being Used in China Now

The disinfectant is available as a spray (primarily for decontaminating personal protective equipment) and as a wipe (primarily for cleaning hospital surfaces). The spray has been field-tested in Liberia, Guinea, Haiti, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Uganda for Ebola and cholera outbreaks. The wipes are being piloted in several hospitals, with a full market launch planned later this year.

The Highlight Spray is already available for purchase and has been shipped to several hospitals in China to help fight COVID-19. In an interesting twist of fate, Mr. Tyan has family in Wuhan (who have fortunately remained healthy). He hopes his product will become a front-line weapon during the coronavirus outbreak, as it was for the Ebola outbreak.

Other Novel Disinfectants

Colorization/color fading does exist in other contexts, for example “those old color-changing toothpastes” and some toilet/bathtub cleaning foamers, Mr. Tyan shared. “But we definitely have a head start in improving disinfection through this colorization and color-fading mechanism. We were the first to execute this concept well and to apply it to health-care settings. We hold four patents in the United States with over a dozen pending.”

Nonetheless, there definitely are competitors trying different methods for improving disinfection and reducing human error, such as entire room-cleaning systems and vaporized disinfectants, Mr. Tyan acknowledged. “The problem with some of these systems is cost—more than $100,000 per machine—and scalability.”

In contrast, the Kinnos approach is “intuitive and grounded” and based on “empowering the human element of cleaning,” according to Mr. Tyan. “Nothing will replace an environmental services worker or nurse who properly wipes away infection with good technique and good coverage—we learned that from helping Ebola workers protect themselves. That’s something we’re building upon.” 

DISCLOSURE: Mr. Tyan is co-founder of Kinnos, owning stocks and patents with the company.


1. Mustapha A, Cadnum JL, Alhmidi H, et al: Evaluation of novel chemical additive that colorizes chlorine-based disinfectants to improve visualization of surface coverage. Am J Infect Control 46:119-121, 2018.

2. Kang J, Tyan KS, Jin K, et al: Field-testing of a novel colour indicator added to chlorine solutions used for decontamination of surfaces in Ebola Treatment Units. J Hosp Infect 99:188-191, 2018.

3. Tyan K, Kang J, Jin K, et al: Evaluation of the antimicrobial efficacy and skin safety of a novel color additive in combination with chlorine disinfectants. Am J Infect Control 46:1254-1261, 2018.

4. Tyan K, Jin K, Kang J: Novel colour additive for bleach disinfectant wipes reduces corrosive damage on stainless steel. J Hosp Infect 103:227-230, 2019.

5. Tyan K, Jin K, Kang J: A novel color additive for bleach wipes indicates surface coverage and contact time to improve thoroughness of cleaning. Infect Control Hosp Epidemiol 40:256-258, 2019.

6. Rutala WA, Weber DJ: Best practices for disinfection of noncritical environmental surfaces and equipment in health care facilities: A bundle approach. Am J Infect Control 47S:A96-A105, 2019.

7. Tyan K, Grover S, Dougan M, et al: Association of vitamin D intake with decreased risk of immune checkpoint inhibitor-induced colitis. 2020 ASCO-SITC Clinical Immuno-Oncology Symposium. Abstract 89. Presented February 7, 2020.