HBS Grads Develop Unshrinkit, a Product That Unshrinks Your Clothes

If they have it their way, the patent-pending solution will eventually be in every laundry room in America.

Two Harvard Business School graduates are determined to unshrink your clothing.

Desiree Stolar and Nate Barbera sold out of their first 200 units of Unshrinkit on the Somerville-based product discovery site The Grommet in one hour. The patent-pending solution interacts with proteins in wool and, with the help of a cold-water rinse, causes them to revert to their original shape.

The goal is lofty: “We want to bring Unshrinkit to every laundry room in America,” Barbera says. But given how far they have come since going live on The Grommet in September 2014, it’s hard not to imagine a country in which every household doesn’t have a bottle of Unshrinkit within arm’s reach.

A shrunken cashmere sweater spawned the idea. Stolar, who had lived in Santa Monica, California, and Tampa, Florida, prior to spending two winters in Boston—the first in a polar vortex and the second surviving the snowiest season on record—was “rusty” when it came to washing wool. She used a home remedy to repair her once-worn cashmere. But, after a few hours of wear, started noticing it crop up inch-by-inch while in class.

Around the same time, a team of her HBS classmates were given $5,000 and told to launch a startup, as part of the school’s FIELD 3 program. Stolar told the team, “I think this is a huge consumer problem,” and Barbera, with a background in mechanical engineering, set out to try and develop a chemically based solution capable of unshrinking wool clothing.

“I checked out a bunch of books from Cornell’s textile engineering department and dug into the science of why wool shrinks,” Barbera says. “We tested out at least 20 ideas, one of which happened to work incredibly well—with no side effects and a relatively inexpensive ingredient.”

They ran the formula by chemists, who encouraged the team to continue producing the product. By the end of their school project, they had filed a provisional patent—without ever bringing R&D outside of Barbera’s dorm room.

“From a supply chain perspective, we couldn’t predict what the demand would be like or had a whole lot of cash,” Barbera explains. “We decided we would manufacture ourselves. We were the epitome of a bootstrapped company.”

Roughly two months after launching on The Grommet, however, the two knew the company was growing too big, too fast. They began bottling Unshrinkit in South Carolina (although they are now in the process of moving manufacturing to Massachusetts), and throughout the first “sweater season,” received media attention, with features on Today and NECN.

“Everyone resoundingly said, ‘Yes, it worked,’” Barbera says. “But as we started increasing in sales, people were starting to say it didn’t.”

They discovered that on very tightly wound garments, Unshrinkit wasn’t penetrating the fibers completely. So, the founders launched into another round of R&D this past February to develop a new solution. Within the next month, the company plans to launch a “professional version” of Unshrinkit, made with the same active ingredients, but with a few additives and a nice, fresh linen scent.

With the newest version will come updated packaging and a better understanding of Unshrinkit’s audience.

“We had to be non-committal on being dead set on who our customer was,” Stolar says. “Back in school, we thought this was for mothers and were targeting mommy blogs.”

More male names started showing up in Unshrinkit’s database, however, and the team soon realized they were reaching everyone from the “college guys doing laundry for the first time” to “the knitting community constantly crocheting beautiful sweaters,” who view Unshrinkit as “the epitome of a spare tire.”

“We learned a ton,” Barbera says. “We sold a bunch of bottles, but now we’re back with an even better product.”

Unshrinkit was selected as a finalist for MassChallenge’s 2015 accelerator program and, with that, received free Fort Point office space and access to speakers, mentors, and industry resources. The startup continues to spend half its time in the Harvard Innovation Lab, however, close to the professors who have supported the business from the beginning.

Now the team is focused on growing that community of supporters. “A lot of people don’t know they can unshrink their clothing,” Stolar says. “We have to disrupt that mental state.”

And the founders sound confident they can accomplish that, with plans to quadruple sales to tens of thousands of units by the end of next spring. To achieve that, they have started focusing on selling online via Amazon, but also in fabric stores, grocers, and pharmacy chains. Down the road, Unshrinkit could also be doing more than unshrinking wool.

“We’d love to keep some suspense,” Barbera says. “But we have a lot of interesting ideas and a lot of things we’ve already started testing.”