Wednesday 24th September 2014
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Some 33 New Zealand companies and four district health boards stand to benefit directly from research underway into a so-called biocide tool box.
The biocide research programme this month won the biggest single amount of funding, $13.2 million over six years, in the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s national science research grants. Part of the reason for that is the size of the prize – global demand for biocide products is growing and has doubled over the past five years to some US$8 billion. The companies are co-funding the research which will be customised to their export needs and are currently subject to non-disclosure agreements. The DHBs through the Health Innovation Hub are also involved in helping develop commercial products in the health area.
Biocides are chemical substances which can ward off harmful organisms by chemical or biological means. Examples include legionella, hospital superbugs, mould in buildings and pandemic viruses. They’re used in all sorts of human activity ranging from hospitals trying to fight bacteria to extending the shelf life of food on shop shelves to protecting water from algae infestations.
A collaboration of researchers are involved in the toolbox, including scientists from Auckland, Victoria and Otago universities and Scion, GNS and the Cawthron Institute. One of the things they did to boost their chances of funding was to engage independent consultant, Martin Jenkins, to report on the export potential of biocide-related products in different markets. The report found 4,600 high value manufacturing and services (HVMS) businesses were in biocide-relevant industries and the fastest-growing of these were manufacturers of human pharmaceutical and medicinal products, other non-metallic mineral products, medical and surgical equipment, other scientific equipment, fixed space heating, and cooling and ventilation equipment.
There are already industries here using biocide products such as paint and coatings, wood and paper and smelting and steel. Some $4.27 billion of biocide relevant commodities were exported from New Zealand in 2012, or just under a tenth of total exports. Exports directly related to the biocide toolbox research totalled $740 million in 2012 and have been growing by an annualised 5.3 per cent rate in the past decade.
Science leader Professor Ralph Cooney said an earlier government grant helped fund research over the previous six years which was focused on one single technology family of biocides – synthetic, antimicrobial polymers. They developed a novel way of combining the antimicrobial and anti-oxidant properties of polyaniline and combining it with conventional plastics. The potential applications are huge, from packaging for raw meat to wound dressings to water supply systems.
Auckland University’s commercial arm UniServices has taken a 10 percent stake in US-based TiFiber Inc that has spun out the patented technology under a licensing deal. It has taken on the risky task of getting the stringent regulatory approval needed to produce the biocide and then on-sell it to companies wanting to incorporate it in their products worldwide.
TiFiber already has a partnership with Bradford Soapworks to co-develop new soap formulations using the technology as a replacement for triclosan and triclocarban which have been causing growing concern in the US over their harmful effects when used in anti-bacterial soaps and other products. Minnesota recently became the first state to ban triclosan for many applications including soap. The licensing rights are non-exclusive in New Zealand and Australia, leaving the door open for any companies wanting to use the technology here.
Cooney said the biocide tool box involves a much broader range of researchers and potential functional biocides because manufacturers said they wanted choices rather than relying on one single type to incorporate in their products. For example, the Cawthron Institute is researching marine biocides while Scion is probing forest biocides and the universities of Auckland and Otago are focused on synthetic surfaces through microbiology. The biocides themselves may also be exported.
Given biocides – pesticides and antimicrobials - are intended to kill living organisms, they often pose significant risk to human health and the environment. Cooney said the research is focusing on producing synthetic-natural biocide combinations which would be more environmentally-friendly. And it is also looking at more innovative ways of applying the biocides such as embedding them in surface coatings or contained within hand washes.
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