Korea's most famed female entrepreneur, Romi Haan. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times

Romi Haan is a mini whirlwind of energy as she bustles about her showroom and talks about her latest product line, one that was years in development but precision-engineered for the Covid-19 era.

The headquarters of Haan Corporation is set in a grim industrial suburb in southern Seoul, but the showroom is made up of a bright, modern kitchen-living room. The diminutive 55-year-old president and CEO is convinced the product – a disinfecting solution of silver, platinum and eight other minerals – is just what the world needs in the Covid-19 era. Not only can it kill infections on surfaces, gloves and masks, it is chemical-free.

“I have always wanted to find a natural solution that could be as effective as chemical solutions but that is environmentally friendly and human friendly,” Haan said with a smile. “I have been looking for this ever since I went into business – for over two decades.”

The solution has already started preliminary sales in South Korea. And Haan, the country’s most famed female entrepreneur, hopes the solution and range of innovative new products will provide her with the oomph to overcome a business setback that pushed the “housewife CEO” into the wilderness for years.

Finding the solution

“I’d been looking for a sterilizing solution for hygiene,” she said. “There are a lot of chemical solutions on the market, but nothing natural.”

Reeling off the names of a range of sterilizers, liquid cleansers and bleaches she said: “One of the reasons US women have so many cancers is because of carcinogenic chemicals. People feel it is more hygienic when it smells chemical, but it is crazy – you are breathing in all the chemicals.”

Aware of the sterilizing properties of silver, she began her search. Korea is home to one of the world’s leading beauty industries, and the solution she came upon originated as a natural preservative used in cosmetics, produced by local firm Gwangdeok. In her discussions with Gwangdeok’s CEO, Lee Sang-ho, Haan realized that the solution could be used more broadly as a disinfectant. Thus was born Virusban.

It is, she claims, completely natural and water-based. Moreover, is not a nano-technology – which raises concerns that tiny particles can enter the skin. Instead, it is a dilution of silver, platinum and minerals that are heat-treated – the chemical term is “conversion” – in a solution of water.

Gwangdeok’s original solution was branded Biotite in the International Cosmetics Industry Dictionary and was registered as a cosmetics ingredient with the Cosmetic and Toiletries Fragrances Association in the US.

Haan’s Virusban products have been tested with the government-registered Korea Conformity Labs and the South Korean-offices of Swiss inspection, verification and certification company SGS, Haan said.

Han with a dispenser of Virusban and a set of masks and filters. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times

Going to market

Virusban is a range of products. Treated mask and glove sets are available, and the basic sterilizer spray comes in 80ml, 180ml, 280ml and 480ml dispensers. It can be used on furniture, toys, in bathrooms or on any surface or object. It has no odor. There are also specialized sprays for metal surfaces and fabrics. Lotions are upcoming.

The first tranche of products – mask sets – went on sale via home shopping channels on April 28.

“We hit over 250% of our sales target in the first hour,” she said. “We sold almost 3,000 mask sets – that is over 10,000 masks.”

Priced at 79,000 won (US$65) for a set of four masks with filters, the masks are not single-use. “We have certification for 30 washes of each mask,” Haan said.

However, she admits that Virusban has not been tested against the dreaded novel coronavirus – yet.

“It is impossible to get the virus – only one agency was going to have the virus in April,” she said, explaining that due to safety-related delays, she expected to get to the lab tests from the Korea Testing and Research Institute in July. “We are on the waiting list to test against the virus.”

Still, her conviction is strong. “Our solution covers all bacteria and germs and I could not imagine how it does not kill that virus,” she said. “But I still want to see it myself.”

The next challenge is overseas sales.

“I can’t go to different countries myself – we need distributors, local distributors who can sell to local customers,” she said. Due to her previous product lines, she has relationships with electrical appliance companies, but Virusban is a household product.

She is applying to the US and EU certifying bodies – the FDA and CE. As the certification she seeks is for household, rather than medical products, she anticipates the process taking about two months, meaning overseas sales by summer.

But by then, won’t the Covid-19 panic have subsided?

“This is something that we will all live with – Covid is not going to be the last infectious diseases,” Haan said. “Americans and Europeans are starting to realize the importance of  masks.”

She noted the possibility of a second wave, and the fact that Asians have customarily worn masks against flu. “Whether we have Covid or not, masks help, and I hope this can become a habit.”

Rise and fall

A French literature graduate, Haan – Korean name, Haan Kyung-hee – worked in PR, real estate, hospitality, wholesale and the civil service before marrying, settling down and having two children. Her most hated chore was scrubbing the hard floors common in Korean homes. In 1999, that led her to teach herself mechanics and invent a new device: the steam floor cleaner.

Unable to raise startup capital, she mortgaged her, and her parents’, homes. Lacking marketing nous and distribution channels, she started selling via home shopping in 2004. The product proved a smash hit.

That established her name and company, Haan Corporation. She followed with improved models, and with more products aimed at easing women’s woes: An “air frying pan” that uses no oil; a breakfast porridge mixer; a vibrating cosmetic application kit; steam fabric cleaners; fabric dryers.

Lauded as a female in a male-dominated business environment, a self-made entrepreneur rather than an heiress, and an innovator rather than a copycat, she was profiled in the Wall Street Journal and Forbes. She was invited to address APEC and OECD fora, and advised Korea’s National Assembly on female empowerment. With 200 staff and revenues of $120 million in 2013, all looked rosy.

In 2014 she invested heavily in an entirely new line: A carbonated capsule drinks business. Unlike her previous self-produced products, this was a licensing and distribution deal with a French company. She expecting billions in sales – but it all fell apart.

“It did not go well,” she said. Haan was forced to cut her losses and institute a total corporate overhaul. “Over the last 3-4 years, I had to revamp my whole organization.”

Formerly a high-profile speaker and mentor, she disappeared from view, worrying many.

“People told me, ‘You can’t fail! Not just for women – but for people in general,’” she said. “I had to show people that you don’t fail – it just takes time to succeed.”

Today, Haan has fewer than 100 employees and is unwilling to disclose recent financials – only repeating that Haan Corp has been in “hibernation” in recent years.

Still, one reason she has been so low profile for the last four years, she said, is because she has spent so much time, money and effort on R&D. Now in relaunch mode, she is aiming for revenues of approximately $100 million by the end of the year.

To reach that, Virusban is just her first initiative. Others are in the pipeline.

Romi Haan with the latest model of her most famed product, the steam floor cleaner. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times

Dyes, bikes and cleansers

She is working with Gwangdeok on a natural, chemical-free hair dye she calls “revolutionary.” It was inspired by the experience of her husband, who suffered memory loss after he started dying his hair – Haan is convinced due to the chemicals in the dye – and her mother, who suffered an eye infection after a henna dye.  

Haan showed Asia Times a prototype self-application apparatus combining a bottle of liquid dye with a comb-like nozzle applier.

Another product is an electric bicycle. Largely leisure products in Korea, bikes are little used for commuting, Haan believes, due to the hilly terrain. Hence, the application of a small motor. A prototype exists, and she expects to start sales in summer. Price is “pretty high,” so she will sell via installment payments.

Yet another product she hopes will hit shelves this summer is a natural body cleanser and female cleanser. “What is fantastic about these products is that they are effective,” she insists. “A lot of organic or herbal- or plant-based cleansers are not.”

Made from tree sources, they are both anti-bacterial and anti-infection, she claims. And taking a leaf out of the book used by traditional Korean masseurs, the products are applied by gloves, which remove dead skin – and which she will packaged with the cleansers.

“It is unlike any kind of soap or cleanser,” she gushes. “It cures skin diseases – and you will have beautiful skin.”

But while most of her products are aimed at women, she no longer wants to be known as the “housewife CEO.”

“If I have a book-publishing event or lecture, I have more men than women,” she said. “I am known as a self-made entrepreneur or an innovator: Men have a good image of the brand because I always invent and innovate.”