Silver particles basis of global intellectual property business
Inhibit Coating’s chief executive Eldon Tate was pretty sure his company's silver nanoparticle technology was a safe and effective way to deal with the Covid virus and its contamination of surfaces.
Then in October 2020, as part of MBIE’s COVID-19 Innovation Accelerator programme, the business was able to prove the antiviral activity of their silver nanoparticle water-based polyurethane coating, with the coating reducing human coronavirus by 99.9 %.
The Technology Valley-Wellington City based company is now rapidly expanding.
Its business model means they work with global coating partners to allow them to make antibacterial and antiviral coatings by incorporating the silver nanoparticles into paint products. The Covid connection is another serendipitous byplay of an industry-based focus which has marked the four year old company’s development.
When Eldon set about studying for his PhD at the Victoria University of Wellington in 2013 his focus was silver-based composite materials.
Along with his supervisor Prof. Jim Johnston the pair had an intent around industry-focused research. Often PhDs produce great science but then it sits on a shelf and is never applied to a practical outcome.
“We also looked at how to do things in a more scalable and robust manner,” says Eldon.
“That’s always very difficult to do with nanomaterials and composites.”
Silver in a number of different forms is well-known as a natural antibacterial agent. Nano-sized particles have a number of advantages, not the least being a large surface area compared to their larger-sized counterparts increasing its effectiveness as an antimicrobial.
Towards the end of his study Eldon looked at commercialisation opportunities for the new science he’d developed, aware too that he wanted to stay in Wellington rather than continuing his career overseas.
As he was working on the methodology that enabled silver nanoparticles as “weird brown stuff in a vial” to be able to have niche applications and be a stable and scalable product, he was also having conversations with possible outside investors.
Their first lot of funding came in November 2016, with help from Tijs Robinson (now Inhibit Coatings chairman, and also COO at Hot Lime Labs) “who was incredibly helpful in forming up our business case.”
About the same time Eldon became aware of the bacterial challenges for the food and beverage sector, and the floor, wall and equipment sanitation and anti-bacterial requirements for the industry. If a certain level of bacteria is found, a complete cleaning regime needs to be carried out, and any food product produced during that time is held, tested, and potentially thrown away to alleviate possible contamination.
Along with Auckland-based Polymer Group (a specialty coatings company and ongoing key partner in Inhibit’s developments), what was now officially known as Inhibit Coatings had developed a floor coating which effectively dealt with bacteria such as E. Coli, Listeria and Salmonella.
The Inhibit Coatings technology within the floor paint allowed food and beverage companies to operate far longer between detectable levels of bacterial infection, and from their point of view was an extremely cost-effective form of risk management.
“There’s incredibly high levels of hygiene, monitoring and testing in New Zealand, but bacterial contamination is still an issue and a global problem,” says Eldon.
“Using our Inhibit technology incorporated into other commercial coatings we set out to stop the recurring contamination issues that can be present in the environment itself.”
“While there are a number of other antimicrobial products in the food industry, they have a number of drawbacks. They’re usually a biocide additive to the paint, and the active ingredient is designed to wash out.
“When you’re washing the floor and walls two or three times a day, the biocide leaches out, and doesn’t last long, before you have the problem of it being washed down the drain.”
Because the Inhibit product is part of the coating itself, it doesn’t wash out, and its antimicrobial properties remain effective over a long period of time.
Longevity and effectiveness
“The longevity and effectiveness of the Inhibit coating sets it apart, and produces awesome results,” says Eldon.
“Our products have been shown to kill 99.996% of bacteria.”
He says silver nanoparticles provide a high surface area, and in having a slight positive charge adhere to the cell wall of a bacteria - causing them to tear open and leak. Visible light also induces the generation of free radicals by silver nanoparticles which are toxic to bacteria, as well as producing silver ions that are highly antimicrobial.
Because the nanoparticles have multiple modes of action, microbial resistance doesn’t occur.
However, the real key to Inhibit Coating’s potential is the fact that the company can produce the silver nanoparticles at scale.
In fact the nanosilver coating production is comparatively simple and safe, without requiring ridiculous equipment or crazy chemicals, which allows Inhibit to relatively easily partner with other paint and coating companies.
Inhibit doesn’t intend becoming a coatings manufacturer in its own right, but will licence the technology to other companies to incorporate it into their own products.
“We are going to be an intellectual property hub, not a coatings company as such,” says Eldon. “That means we’ll be very much technology focused, and because there’s so many applications for our product, we’ll leave the manufacturing and distribution to the experts.”
As well as helping coatings partners expand their offerings in food and beverage industries, next year Inhibit intends to trial its product within a clinical hospital setting.
“We’re very confident of its ability to deal with MRSA [methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus] and VRE [Vancomycin-resistant Enterococci], which hospitals find very hard to get rid of,” he says.
“We almost have a responsibility, because of the impact we can have on people’s health, to get our product out quickly.
“Over the next two years we intend to have our product available and out there at scale. We’re working alongside some large multinational companies, who have global footprints who can get our product out there quickly.”
Eldon is cautious to not over-state the potential for Inhibit to grow beyond its current five person team, but points out that the company has never rung anyone...people have all come to them.
“We have numerous areas of application we’ve thought about and looked at,” he says.
As a relatively new company, with a highly effective safe means to combat harmful bacteria and viruses there are a lot of opportunities, Eldon says one of the main jobs is to “try not to bite off more than we can chew.”
“We need to make sure all our projects align, and there’s as much overlap as possible because we only have limited resources.”
Business development role
Inhibit will continue to base itself out of the university for now, with Eldon’s own role being more and more around business development and operations, supported by a great team of scientists and engineers.
To this end he continues to learn soft skills at eXponential Founders (coaching clinics for tech entrepreneurs) and picked up some additional management knowledge from the Melbourne Business School.
“I’ve learned on the job, picked up some tools of the trade, and through support networks and talking to others I’ve been able to learn from their experiences,” Eldon says.
“It’s certainly been an exciting adventure. I never envisaged this would be the case when I started on my PhD, but was always hopeful it might happen.
“Sure there was a level of naivety in jumping in as seeing what would happen.
“It’s a challenge, but being able to employ people in Wellington itself, and being able to apply our knowledge for the betterment of people’s health is just fantastic.
“We look forward to growing and being part of making people’s lives better.”
(Caption: Inhibit Coatings chief executive, Dr Eldon Tate, with a sample of an Inhibit Coatings infused floor paint)