Groton veteran wins startup competition with UV light sunscreen

Michael Kerwin, a Groton resident and veteran, took home first place at the InnoVets Pitch Competition in Boston, May 24, 2023. The U.S. Army veteran has spent years creating YouV Sunscreen, which uses fluorescent light to help users check if they missed a spot after applying. (Courtesy Hanscom Federal Credit Union)

GROTON — A trip to the beach usually means a guaranteed sunburn for Michael Kerwin.

The Groton resident, who admits he’s “pretty pale,” recalls his mom’s struggle with applying sunscreen on him as a kid and how he still will “get roasted pretty easily.” After swimming and rubbing his body off with a towel, Kerwin said he’d end up with awkward, painful burns.

After a lifetime of redness, itchiness and plenty of aloe, Kerwin took matters into his own hands, creating YouV Sunscreen. After putting on the SPF 30 mineral sunscreen, users can detect how well they applied using the bottle’s built-in fluorescent light. If their skin shines light blue under the light, it means there’s sunscreen there, but light purple light indicates there’s no sunscreen.

Though it adds a couple more steps in the summer routine, Kerwin said he knows it’ll help in the long run.

“I recommend people do it when they first apply sunscreen or if they’re applying it for their kids to make sure they didn’t miss any spots,” Kerwin said. “Then when they go to reapply, which is supposed to be every few hours, that they use the light to see areas that have washed or rubbed off.”

Kerwin’s invention — which has been several years in the making — earned him top prize at the InnoVets Pitch Competition, where veterans and military families introduce their business startups before a panel of judges in an effort to secure seed money. Kerwin took home $12,500, supplied by the May 24 event’s sponsor, Hanscom Federal Credit Union.

Having entered pitch contests before with little success, Kerwin said the win came as a big surprise.

“It makes me feel better and makes my efforts worth more because people like it or people gave me good reception, and it’s a good amount of money, which is really huge for me,” Kerwin said. “It helps me get through some of these challenges and prepare my product for the future.”

After graduating from West Point in 2016, Kerwin joined the U.S. Army, where he served as an entry officer in Georgia and Mississippi ,and left in May 2021 as a captain. But on the nights and weekends when he wasn’t working, Kerwin was experimenting with sunscreens at home, struck with the idea of using fluorescence for further beach protection.

Researching black light materials and creating new formulas, Kerwin eventually purchased a 3D printer to start designing lights that would eventually be placed on the top of the sunscreen tube.

It was “a lot of trial and error” over the course of six years, Kerwin said, but he relied on his military training to persevere and remember his original mission and intent for the product. Kerwin would bring index cards with him during the day to jot down ideas or questions that he would return to that evening.

“One of the things I learned at West Point was we’re doing work all the time,” Kerwin said. “So when I got in the Army, I really wanted to keep those habits going, and I wanted to remain productive in my free time.”

When veterans transition to civilian life, it can often be a difficult adjustment, said Peter Rice, CEO of Hanscom Federal Credit Union — which primarily serves veterans, police unions, the U.S. Department of Defense and their families. Veterans rank low on wellness measures, Rice said, and they’re more likely to be turned down for a loan.

However, veterans are also savvy and entrepreneurial, Rice said, and many try to start their own businesses out of the service.

“Research shows that generally, they’re far more successful because of their grit, their determination and their forward planning,” Rice said. “Veterans are really good at planning, working to a mission and being purpose-driven, and I don’t think as a society we do enough to support them and harness their skills.”

The credit union provided $25,000 in total funding for the veteran and Gold Star Family businesses in the competition, Rice said.

Rice, along with the four other judges, evaluated products on creativity, marketable value and helpfulness or functionality. YouV Sunscreen, he said, “scored top marks in every category.” It’s an idea so “genius” that Rice is upset he hadn’t thought of it himself.

“I’m someone who usually has to wear a factor 100, 110,” Rice said, “and within 20 minutes, I can feel the spot that I missed … The product had this great, safe application to combat rising skin cancers, but it also made it fun and engaging for families to use.”

Kerwin said he’s in the final stages of officially launching the sunscreen, which he hopes will happen in a couple months, and has already received a patent — an achievement four years in the making. Down the road, Kerwin said he plans to release an SPF 50 as well as spray sunscreens.

For now, Kerwin will keep his new job at Eversource, but the goal is to eventually go full-time into the sunscreen business.

Though it took him a while to get here, Kerwin and his story showcases the best parts of the United States and its people, Rice said.

“I think people love this story in particular because it shows us just how great our country can be,” Rice said, “that the good guys can and do win and that you shouldn’t give up on your dream and that you can serve your community, that you can serve your nation, and you can be successful by giving back.”

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