The ex-car mechanic tackling the problem of superbug resistance

Dr Patrick Cronin’s surface coating can be applied to dressings and hospital gowns to kill MRSA and CPE

Dr Michal Osiak and Dr Patrick Cronin. Photograph: Oisin McHugh True Media

Dr Michal Osiak and Dr Patrick Cronin. Photograph: Oisin McHugh True Media

 

A novel surface coating developed by Irish startup, Mica NanoTech, could be the answer to the growing worldwide problem of superbug resistance. Developed in Limerick by Dr Patrick Cronin, the company’s flagship technology is called Textilise and it can be applied to fabrics such as dressings and hospital gowns to kill persistent offenders including methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and carbapenase-producing Enterobacteriaceae (CPE) which are notoriously difficult to eradicate.

Cronin first began working on the coating technology when he was completing an EU-backed PhD in physics at the University of Limerick (UL). The doctorate’s focus was boosting scientific excellence in the field of advanced medical surfaces. In 2009, Cronin began work on developing a liquid based coating that would be applied to textiles prior to their use in manufacturing to kill bugs and turn them into harmless substances.

“Textiles are a well known transporter of superbugs in healthcare environments through contamination and the movement of people in contact with clothing, bedding and drapes,” Cronin says. “Our coatings can eliminate superbugs such as MRSA and CPE.”

The potential market for the company’s technology is huge. Drug-resistant bacteria killed more than 33,000 people in Europe in 2015 and a 2018 report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development says antimicrobial resistant infections will kill 2.4 million people by 2050. Treatment costs, which are already running into billions, will only continue to rise.

Cronin qualified as a car mechanic when he left school and worked in the motor industry for five years before going to UL as a mature student to study mechanical engineering. He graduated with a first class honours degree and jumped at the opportunity to stay on and study for a PhD.

“Because of my technical skill set in engineering I was able to build the machines and test rigs needed to develop the process and I combined this with the scientific knowledge from my PhD to develop the coating, so the IP behind the business came from my original research,” he says.

Use of silver

When Cronin started developing the technology he set himself a number of challenges. One of them was to develop a coating that didn’t use silver, which is a traditional method of killing harmful bacteria. Another was to create a coating that would keep on working over time and not degenerate. Thirdly, Cronin wanted to reduce the amount of coating needed to be effective and finally he knew any successful process would have to be low cost and rapid to suit the cost base and fast turnaround times of the textiles industry.

“There is a growing issue with silver because the silver based nanomaterials currently in use fade in effectiveness over time and are very expensive not least because of commodity price fluctuations,” Cronin says. “They are also coming under scrutiny from environmental and sustainability perspectives and their use is increasingly being banned. We do not use silver which makes our technology highly cost effective and fabrics treated with Textilise can be washed for up to 100 industrial cycles with no reduction in antimicrobial performance.”

Textilise is adaptable to different applications and uses different combinations of “ingredients” such as zinc, titanium and copper sulphate as required. The coating can be applied to a wide variety of textiles including cotton, viscose rayon, polyester and nylon which typically end up in filters, wound dressings, uniforms, workwear, surgical drapes and bed linen. The company’s potential customers include textile manufacturers and suppliers of antimicrobial coating materials.

“The nanomaterial in the coating fully eliminates microbes after one hour from the moment of contact with the textile and once applied the coating is fully anchored to the textile surface. At the same time processing and materials costs are contained by removing the need for chemical agents to couple the nanomaterials with the textile,” Cronin says.

Development and financing

Having taken the technology as far as possible as an academic endeavour, Cronin successfully applied for an Enterprise Ireland commercialisation grant in 2014 to move the idea forward. He also signed up for a course for budding entrepreneurs at UL’s Nexus Innovation Centre to develop his commercial acumen and flesh out a strategic plan for the business. Through the technology transfer office at UL, Cronin was introduced to businessman Ray Kirwan, a co-founder of DoneDeal who subsequently became a co-founder of Mica NanoTech when it was spun out from UL in 2018. Cronin’s other co-founder is materials scientist Dr Michal Osiak.

Dr Michal Osiak and Dr Patrick Cronin - co-founders of Mica NanoTech. Photograph: Oisin McHugh True Media
Dr Michal Osiak and Dr Patrick Cronin - co-founders of Mica NanoTech. Photograph: Oisin McHugh True Media

Financial support for the project has come from personal resources, the EU, Enterprise Ireland (commercialisation and CSF funding) and Limerick Local Enterprise Office. Investment to date is around €1 million. The company currently employs four people and is in discussions to bring two experienced textile engineers on board “to give us the advanced engineering scalability experience we need,” Cronin says.

The founders are now in the process of finalising how the company will charge for its technology but Cronin says licensing is the most likely route. It also expects to generate income from working with companies on new product development and from selling the coating material. Where the coatings are made will depend on regulations governing individual markets.

“Myself and Michael are on the materials side of things and are essentially scientists while Ray is the commercial drive behind the company,” Cronin says. “As a scientist, my interest is always in perfecting the data and always seeing that it needs more work. However, there comes a point where you need to let the market tell you what needs to be done. For me the turning point was meeting Ray. Within a week, he had us on a plane to an exhibition in Germany. I spoke to my wife about it and she said that even if nothing came of the trip I’d get to spend a day with the guy who co-founded Done Deal and would learn so much from just spending time with him.”

Reaction to the company’s technology at the exhibition convinced Kirwan that the opening and opportunity were there. “Ray’s attitude was let’s go and talk to these companies and see what they say. Let them direct the product development as opposed to me stuck in a lab thinking I know what they want,” Cronin says.

“Ray gave me the push I needed to go above the line. I was always hovering below it feeling the technology was never good enough. His view was that we should take it to market and we’d see quick enough if it was ready. We spoke to 25 companies at that exhibition and 23 of them were overwhelming positive. The following week the 24th one emailed us and we’re now doing a project with them.”

Mica NanoTech is still pre-revenue but it is currently working with 25 potential customers across Europe, Scandinavia and the US and expects to be revenue generating in quarter three of this year. The company will also be launching a fundraising round. “One of the projects we’re doing is with a large UK company supplying the aerospace industry and it is on the brink of coming to fruition,” says Cronin. “This is really important for us as it will be our first reference client and of course when you go in to pitch, people always want to know who you’re working for.”

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