A new way to save energy? Waterless washing machines could be in homes from 2016

How I Beat the Odds: Bill Westwater, CEO of Xeros, wants people to ditch traditional washing machines and use polymer beads instead.

by Elizabeth Anderson
Last Updated: 09 Jul 2014

I worked at Procter & Gamble for eight years and then at a number of other corporates. I got the call asking if I'd like to run Xeros six years ago. When someone says he's invented a way of cleaning clothes better by substituting most of the water, frankly, your first thought is a great deal of cynicism.

But I went up to Leeds to visit the professor who had invented the technology and, after a crude demonstration, I thought the idea might have legs - I wanted to disrupt an industry that hasn't changed for half a century.

When you're managing brands for big corporates, the aim is 'don't screw it up'. You feel very much beholden not to rock the boat. Now I'm trying to do the opposite. When I explain to people what we're trying to do, it can sound a bit strange, but they seem to be open to doing something in a different way.

Xeros uses reusable polymer beads to wash clothes - it cleans better than water and means consumers save on the energy bills associated with a traditional machine cycle.

At the moment, we're focusing on the laundry market and have introduced commercial machines, but we're well on the way to making a smaller washing machine. I hope that in two years' time, the first near-waterless washing machines will start to arrive in people's homes.

The beads are the size of grains of rice and you need to use a lot of them per cycle. In our commercial machines we're using 1.5 million during the process. The nylon polymer absorbs dirt and therefore you get a better clean - it's almost as if you've got dirty bath water swilling around in a typical washing machine.

The beads can be reused hundreds of times and when they're done we come and replace them. The best way to think about Xeros is as a system: you need a special Xeros washing machine, a detergent designed for low water environments, and the beads.

At the moment, we charge commercial clients a monthly fee of around $1,000 per machine for everything, but that's cheaper than what many currently use and their water and energy bills go right down.

When you're running a business like ours, which is pre-revenue and uses expensive technology, funding is the biggest issue. We have done three rounds of VC fundraising, yielding about £16m, since 2008. But, recently, we raised £30m after going public. Now we're not worrying about money it means I can focus on working with the team on a business plan.

We have about 35 engineers based in Sheffield working on the system. We've already launched to laundry businesses in the UK and the US, and we're also interested in China, where our machines are made. We've created a prototype of a much smaller machine for households but we now need to team up with a large corporate partner to get the product to market.

I'm not saying we've cracked the challenge of changing people's washing habits. I wouldn't want to position myself as an entrepreneur who's done it yet, but we're certainly well on the way.

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