Exclusive Interview with Nancy Falk of The Clorox Company

Smithers: You’ve invented 28 U.S. patents and publications and are listed on patent publications in 18 other countries.  What is the most memorable patent you worked on?  

Nancy Falk: All of them are special to me, but my first patent was my most memorable.   I learned how filing a patent is different from writing a technical paper, with the proof you need to show that you are the first to ever have made this formula and that it has practical use.  I learned how to search patent databases and how to read patents to understand what is being claimed.  That extra knowledge I gained has helped me tremendously in my career—I helped my patent attorney get through a complex freedom-to-operate process for a large product launch (ensuring we didn’t infringe on others’ patents).   I now analyze large numbers of patents for technology and industrial trends.  

Smithers: What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your career?

Nancy Falk: I was asked to improve a formula by a significant amount a few years ago.  I broke down the project into weekly milestones.  With a very talented group of scientists and some great surfactant science, we hit every milestone and developed successful prototypes in just a few weeks, and we launched the formula successfully.  Every time I think of how this project went and how this team just gelled around solving the problem and worked so seamlessly together between the various tests we had to do to refine the formula, I’m still blown away.

Smithers: When developing a product, how to do you balance consumer needs with strategy and science?

Nancy Falk: It really helps if your strategy aligns with consumer needs, which Clorox’s does (we start and end with the consumer).  Product development is always a balancing act, making sure you have the right use experience for the consumer, product efficacy and safety, acceptable cost, manufacturability, and legal and environmental compliance.   For advertising purposes, the product has to have a story, so you develop claims to help support that where they resonate with the consumer but you can back them up with technical proof as needed.

Smithers: What does Clorox hope to achieve and what can we see happening over the next few years with regards to the future of cleaning products?

Nancy Falk: For our Clorox brand, cleaning is the beginning.  What comes next is everything.  When you have a clean home, you can be your best self.  When you have clean sheets, you will sleep better, and that makes you a better and healthier parent, employee, friend, spouse.  When you have a clean kitchen, you can cook healthy meals for your family.  You can invite friends over.  Your children will perform better academically with a clean home environment.  It’s not just about preventing illness by disinfection—clean environments are less stress inducing.  Lower stress gets you into a healthier lifestyle and better health long term.   We seek to innovate behind these insights to help our consumers live better lives.

Smithers: What innovations would you like to see in the future?

Nancy Falk: If you are talking about cleaning products…Clorox is working on them!  Unfortunately, I can’t tell you about them just now, but stay tuned.  We’re always thinking of the next best thing to meet our consumers’ needs – in fact, product innovation has contributed to 3 percent of incremental growth for the company every year for the past eight years.

Beyond cleaning products, I’m personally really excited about the innovations in battery and sensor technologies—this can lead toward initiatives in robotics and automation.  I bought a new car last year and it really dawned on me that many of the new features are baby steps toward driverless cars.  That and drones are likely to revolutionize how products are transported.

Smithers: Why is this event important to the cleaning products industry?

Nancy Falk: This conference brings together people involved in all areas of the cleaning products industry to help us address some of the common issues we face in a collaborative way. 

Smithers: What new surfactant technologies have emerged in hard surface formulas in recent years? 

Nancy Falk: With ingredient disclosure becoming the norm today in retail cleaning products – at Clorox, we’ve been disclosing our ingredients voluntarily for a decade now through our Ingredients Inside program --  it’s pretty easy to see what surfactants are going into products.  What I see are more claims of plant-based surfactants, not just alkyl polyglucosides, but the alkyl ethoxylates are plant based as well.  We are seeing an increase in alkyl chain branching and in EO/PO surfactants, both of which can provide improved wetting.  Another trend that’s emerged is the lowering of volatile organic compounds (VOCs).  The solvents replacing VOCs in formulas are more less water-soluble. This affects the surfactant balance in the formula to accommodate these solvents.

Smithers: What makes them better and what more needs to be done in this area?

Nancy: We’re seeing new surfactants drive improved wetting and soil removal, while also lowering VOCs.  With the disclosure laws in New York and California, attention will be paid to byproducts and additives that are on Chemicals of Concern lists.  Suppliers can review their processes and preservatives used and be transparent to their customers so that we can comply with these regulations.