The cool thing about running a fund that invests in over a hundred companies with tickets ranging from 30,000 to 1 million euros, is that you get to see a lot of different entrepreneur types across different stages. From seasoned second- or third-time founders, all the way to excited first-timers who are drinking from the entrepreneurship firehose for the first time.
Georgi Mutafchiev, the founder of TOM Thermochromic is hard to place though. Albeit still in his early twenties, he’s been part of several Sofia startups, in a team or co-founder role, and with TOM he’s on his first solo gig with his own product.
The genesis of TOM Thermochromic, a liquid thermometer that is applied to the skin as an ointment, started two years ago, at the outset of the Covid pandemic, when Georgi, who had just recently graduated high school, joined the team Kelvin Health. That company was a spinoff of a well-known Sofia startup in the computer vision space, and was developing a specific health application for computer vision technology.
One of the projects that Kelvin Health was focusing on at the time was thermography, specifically using computer vision to determine and analyze temperature mutations on the human skin. At some point, Kelvin Health dropped the project, and Georgi decided to take it out of the company and develop separately as a standalone product.
The science behind TOM is the use of artificial pigments that are engineered to develop at specific temperatures. That way, the color changes at reaching a certain, pre-defined temperature. The first ideas at Kelvin and TOM were lifestyle products, like temperature-sensitive tattoos, but very quickly Georgi realized that there is a healthcare application for this technology.
“This was spring 2020, we were all sitting at home under the first Covid lockdowns, and it dawned on me: if temperature is one of the defining symptoms, couldn’t we use this pigment technology to detect the first signs of Covid before it becomes contagious”, says Georgi.
This combination of experience at Kelvin Health and the onset of the Covid pandemic is what got TOM Thermochromic going. Locked down with his parents and girlfriend in his ancestral home in the beautiful Razlog valley in Bulgaria, Georgi set out trying various proportions for getting the chemical formula of the ointment right. Armed with contacts with Bulgarian scientists from his time at Kelvin Health, Georgi got in touch with several other scientists in the US, to understand the best method for getting the correct thermochromic reagent.
“It’s not an easy thing to do, when you don’t have a background in material sciences and chemistry”, says Georgi, “but with the help of my dad and the Bulgarian and US scientists, I learned a lot, and in the end we managed to get a mix that was stable and usable”.
As the pandemic progressed in 2020, Georgi got in touch with the University of Burgas, on the Bulgarian seaside, to start trials with various commercially available pigments and patient applications. That process, together with the lean development methodology Georgi had learned at the Beyond Pre-Accelerator run by Junior Achievement Bulgaria, helped him focus on doing quick iterations with the University to get the product right.
By summer 2021 the product was ready for the first closed trials, and Georgi and his team got the feedback they were looking for; TOM Thermochromic’s first batch turned out pretty accurate as a thermometer. The product comes in attractive packaging, and is an odorless, colorless liquid that is applied to human skin, after which it dries and remains unnoticeable. The area to which it is applied, however, starts changing color when the body temperature goes above 36.6 degrees Celsius.
With a product that needs no healthcare certification, passing as a cosmetics item, Georgi is now focused on limited batch production, at a small chemical lab in Bulgaria that meets the requirements for initial serial volumes. After successfully selling these first few batches through TOM’s own proprietary direct-to-consumer channels online, Georgi is now focusing on bigger batches and mature distribution channels outside Bulgaria.
“If the first thousand bottles of TOM taught us anything, it's that we developed a catchy product that the market is excited about”, concludes Georgi. As he focuses on better packaging, upgraded production capabilities, and ramped up distribution, Georgi is optimistic that TOM has a bright future, also beyond Covid. “Thanks to Kelvin Health and Covid, we got the timing right to develop this product. Now that we have validation, our focus is to start selling in stores in Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands later this year”.