Coronavirus: Start-ups with pioneering surface-coating technologies get busy

These new Irish technology companies may play a key strategic role in disease prevention

While the fallout from coronavirus has shuttered and silenced businesses across the island, the phones at surface-coating technology company Kastus have been hopping. Kastus produces "always on" antimicrobial protection for glass and ceramic surfaces on smartphones, autoclaves and touchscreen kiosks and the company's chief executive, John Browne, says there has been a sharp spike in inquiries since coronavirus was declared a pandemic.

"We've been flat out and working 14-hour days," he says. "In the last two weeks we've had over a dozen inquiries from potential customers who want us to supply them immediately. This is in sharp contrast to what we'd experienced up to now, which were long lead times and delayed decision-making, especially by the big multinationals. That's changed almost overnight. There is now an urgency to the inquiries with potential customers wanting our product straight away. We have good connections in China, so we've been aware of how things were unfolding there, and we took steps to ensure we had sufficient stocks built up. This puts us in a strong position to benefit from the opportunity now in front of us."

Browne is acutely aware that there is a human cost to the potential sales boost, but says the recognition is the culmination of more than eight years of R&D that led Kastus to take its first tentative steps towards commercialisation in 2017. Since then, employment at the company has grown to 18 people and it is the process of closing a funding round of €10 million.

“The business has been progressing slowly but steadily, initially with a €3 million funding round that allowed us to commercialise the product, make key hires and bolster our IP strategy,” says Browne, whose company won the overall Irish Times Innovation of the Year award in 2017 for its pioneering coating that can kill 99.99 per cent of harmful bacteria and superbugs such as E.coli and MRSA. The (Irish-made) coating is sprayed on to a surface and sintered into it by high-temperature baking to form a bug-repelling hard surface layer.


Strong sales pipeline

"We had built up a strong sales pipeline for the next three years, all export-based, and in December last we signed a deal with the multimillion dollar US company Zagg which produces protective coverings for consumer electronics and hand-held devices," Browne says. "In fairness to the team and to the investors who have supported us, we have worked long and hard for this opportunity. The coronavirus has been the catalyst that made the penny finally drop with manufacturers that they need to be protecting their products with our products because once something is coated it is safe for life."

Browne predicts that how people interact with touch surfaces such as ATMs and other types of kiosks with shared screens (airport check-in machines, for example) will be changed forever by the pandemic. “People’s behaviour is changing already and as our technology is applicable across numerous types of surfaces, this shift in behaviour will be a big ongoing opportunity for us,” he says.

Cronavirus is also giving a leg up to a second Irish company involved with novel surface coatings, Limerick-based Mica NanoTech. It has developed a product to coat textiles used in healthcare such as dressings and hospital gowns to kill persistent bugs including MRSA and CPE. As with Kastus, the R&D has been lengthy and kicked off in 2009 when Dr Patrick Cronin began working on it as part of his PhD.

As with Kastus, the potential market for Mica NanoTech's technology is huge. Drug-resistant bacteria killed more than 33,000 people in Europe in 2015 and a 2018 report from the OECD says antimicrobial resistant infections will kill 2.4 million people by 2050.

"Very few products such as the gowns and drapes used by the NHS in the UK and the HSE here have an antimicrobial coating," Dr Cronin says. "The health services like the idea of it but they're not prepared to pay for it although we're only talking about a few cents per garment. Secondly, one of the big issues in the current crisis is a shortage of facemasks largely because they're single use and disposable. It is entirely feasible to produce masks with an antiviral/antimicrobial coating so they can be reused."

Antiviral coating

Mica NanoTech was spun out from UL in 2018 and Cronin was joined in the start-up by co-founder and materials scientist Dr Michal Osiak and businessman Ray Kirwan, co-founder of DoneDeal. The company employs four and is raising about €800,000 to further its R&D and build out the business. Up to now, the company's focus has been on antibacterial coatings but it has also been developing an antiviral coating that is showing positive results in testing and could be ready for market in the next 12-18 months.

“Last Friday, the EU put out a call for companies to come forward with solutions to help prevent the spread/re-emergence of the coronavirus long term,” Ray Kirwan says. “They usually give companies a two- to three-month window in which to respond. This time it was a week. We have applied for funding under this initiative and if we are successful it will allow us to further develop our technology and to build a facility in which we could coat garments such as healthcare workers’ clothing ourselves.”

Like Kastus, Mica NanoTech has seen a ramping up of inquiries over the last two weeks and projects that were moving slowly have speeded up. The company is working with an Irish-based producer of surgical wipes and a US-based producer of absorbent pads for operating theatres.

Multiple uses

Patrick Cronin says the healthcare sector needs to recognise that coatings are not “nice to have” but a solution that can play a key strategic role in disease prevention. “This is where people’s heads need to be now – not responding after the event,” he says. “No one thing is going to solve the problems the world is facing in terms of the spread of diseases and viruses. It’s going to be a combination of things and specialised coatings are one of them as they can be applied across a whole variety of surfaces. These coatings have multiple uses: furniture in crèches, airline seats and the automotive industry. In fact we’re currently working with a car company on antiviral measures for air filters. We very much see our mission as delivering environmentally sustainable coating processes using a safety-by-design approach to achieve efficiency, low cost and performance to protect our communities and the environment.”