Startups

DC startup Throne is bringing tech to portable bathrooms around the city

Founded by Jessica Heinzelman and Fletcher Wilson, the company created a solar-powered portable bathroom that can be accessed with a smartphone.

A Throne portable bathroom at Sandlot SE.

(Courtesy photo)

For founders looking to get their footing, an accompanying song for their startup is probably not in the first-year goals.

But DC-based Throne CEO Fletcher Wilson had the luck of his uncle Bruce Higdon (musically backed by Andy Meginniss), who provided a track for the toilet tech company:

“All I did was use my app

It opened up a brand-new world, with a place to hang my cap

A silent sanitary space, a throne fit for a king

I can’t believe I found a porta potty worth remembering.”

Throne was founded by Wilson and COO Jessica Heinzelman in June 2020. After struggling with irritable bowel syndrome throughout his life, Wilson wanted to create a luxury, portable bathroom with the help of tech, Heinzelman told Technical.ly.

“We put it at some sandwich shops, a park and a trailhead in Charlottesville, Virginia to see: Would people open a bathroom with their phone, and what would their reaction be?” Heinzelman said.

To access a Throne toilet, users need to either type in their phone number, which will prompt a text and QR code scan, or they can download the app for access, which includes a map of Thrones in the area and a real-time cleanliness rating so users aren’t surprised by conditions.

A big problem with many public and private restrooms, according to Heinzelman, is the worry that people are going to abuse them. Adding a tech component felt like a good option to the founders because tech allows monitoring and feedback without the need to have someone in person at each unit. The Throne sensors and tech can alert the company if a unit has been occupied for too long or if it needs to be cleaned, as well as how often the units are being used. If someone is using it improperly, since it’s attached to a phone number, their access can be banned.

Jessica Heinzelman. (Photo via LinkedIn)

“You don’t have to pay someone to sit there all the time, but you still get the benefit of the accountability that creates, and the remote ability to say, ‘Hey, something needs attention, something’s not right,'” Heinzelman said.

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The Thrones are standalone units powered by rooftop solar panels, although it does have an option to be plugged in if necessary. The unit features a freshwater tank in the wall and a waste tank on the bottom and also uses gray water from hand washing for flushes. Heinzelman said the Thrones are serviced about every 100 uses, but the app will also alert the company if it needs it sooner.

The Thrones currently feature steps and require a smartphone to use, but the company is at work building a Throne for users with disabilities and a way to use it without a phone for those who are unhoused or lack a device. Right now, Heinzelman said that would likely look like a card, similar to a Metro card, that can be personalized to each user and scanned to open the door.

Currently, businesses and other public entities can rent a Throne on a monthly basis, which includes cleaning and servicing. But Heinzelman said the company is also exploring an option to purchase a Throne or to rent a larger volume at once. So far, the startup has raised seed funding primarily from angel investors and will be looking to raise a Series A in mid-2023.

Locally, Throne has placed units at the Sandlot SE and worked with business improvement districts to place a Throne at events like the downtown DC holiday market, Heinzelman said. Its new version also features new updates like a skylight, changing table and coat hook, as well as some adjustments to the hardware and software such as improving the weight sensor. It hopes to add 25 to 50 thrones in the DC area over the next year.

“Portable sanitation really hasn’t had any innovation for 50-plus years. It’s been the same, basic thing,” the cofounder said. “Our original vision was to have a network of thrones across the city so that really wherever you are, you know you’re going to be able to find the bathroom.”

Sorry, but we’ll go ahead and say it: That’s toilet availability worth singing about.

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