Creating fibres naked to the human eye is at the heart of what the Revolution Fibres team does. But add some secret sauce to these fibres and suddenly there's the potential to overturn the cosmetics, health and electronics markets. And that's just for starters.
Pluck a strand of your hair from your head and take a close look at it. Pretty fine in size. Now imagine that strand were 100 to 500 times thinner.
For the young team at Revolution Fibres, dealing with minuscule fibres like this is just another day in the office. It’s hoping its impressively self-titled ‘sonic electrospinning technology’, combined with its ability to blend a “secret sauce” of natural additives to the spinning process, will enable it to create world-leading functional fibres for applications that include skincare, textiles, filtration and healthcare. Unlike ordinary electrospinning, which uses a needle-based approach, sonic electrospinning technology is needle-less, meaning the rate of fibre production increases dramatically. Revolution Fibres is the first company in New Zealand to develop and commercialise nanofibre products and with the global nanofibre market expected to increase to $517 million by 2015, it could prove to be a golden ticket.
Technical director Iain Hosie says the company wants to catch the impending upswing in the industry. Hosie, together with Simon Feasey and Michael Perrett, founded the company two and a half years ago after working at ventilation company HRV in various guises. HRV was importing a lot of filter material but the trio thought they could go one better by making filters themselves. In a “fortuitous” move, Hosie says he’d already seen the electrospinning process in action – albeit the needle approach – at Plant & Food Research in Christchurch. What caught his eye was that the team there was spinning collagen fibre from hoki fish skins, an otherwise wasted by-product.
“It seemed like quite a small, lab-scale type process, but what really interested us was that you could put additives and actually start to create fibres from certain properties,” he says.
Seeing the limitless opportunities around nanofibre, they set up a company in 2009 and managed to secure a good whack of funding from the Ministry of Science and Innovation (MSI) to get it off the ground. And Revolution Fibres was born.
The team was convinced the collagen-based hoki fibre could be electrospun and applied as a filter material. Hoki skins make a particularly suitable spinning material because the cold-water environment they swim in gives the skin a unique type of collagen.
The biodegradable filters for HRV, called Seta, is the first product off the ranks for the company. Each features 30km of fine white nanofibres that employ an almost magnetic-like force, similar to that used by geckos to walk on ceilings. Forming an electrostatic web over the base of the Potatopak filter base, particles that touch the fibres get caught and stuck, and the various microscopic bacteria, moulds and lung damaging dust particles trapped. The molecular alignment of the polymer particles makes the fibres particularly strong.
There’s another kicker. Manuka honey, together with an antibacterial and antioxidant additive especially sourced from New Zealand Extracts, is woven into the collagen fibres, essentially deactivating the harmful particles once they’ve been caught.
With its strong ties with HRV, the team knew it had an entry point into an existing market and it was confident it could “piggy back” off HRV’s expansion in Australia. Sales of the filters are now growing at an average of 63 percent per month.
The Seta filter is the company’s only commercial product on the market so far, which Hosie says is a case of the chicken or the egg.
“We’re two years down the track with minimal products out there but with a lot of potential,” he says. “It’s about being able to thrive on the belief of the potential of your business without the usual supply contracts that keep you going.”
The team should take heart at the MSI’s belief in the company’s potential; to date, MSI has allocated more than $800,000 in funding to their efforts.
MSI acting regional manager Hamish Campbell says the most exciting thing about the company is that it’s creating a truly scalable opportunity.
“It’s a really classic example of how things should work in terms of taking some science, applying some smart commercial nous to it and beyond that, creating what is a platform technology,” he says.
Electrospinning isn’t the new kid on the block – it’s been around since the 1930s. But machines have been confined to a lab-scale size, equipped with only one or a few needles that are capable of outputting just a fraction of a gram of fibre per hour.
Revolution Fibres isn’t shunning the humble lab-scale machine. Sitting solemnly in a corner upstairs in the company’s office, the humble Electrospinz machine has one to three needles and can cover a surface area of about 100mm2; it played a critical role in developing the HRV Seta filter fibres.
In another room sits the company’s first needle-less machine, made possible in part thanks to an MSI TechNZ grant of $456,000. Affectionately referred to as the Chameleon, the R&D prototype is capable of medium scale production, outputting up to 2000 m2 of one-metre fibre rolls per day.
But in the warehouse out the back is a machine the Revolution Fibres team is really pinning its commercial success hopes on. The industrial-sized Komodo, due to be completed between November and December this year, is capable of producing 2000m2 of two-metre fibre rolls per hour. And it’s idiot-proof.
“The aim is to make it simple enough to use that someone with a hangover can turn up, push a few buttons, sit down and read a book and the machine will just go,” says Hosie.
General manager Albert McGhee says the ability to produce so much nano-material per week opens up all sorts of markets that were previously unavailable because of the difficulty to scale up. The age of the team – all largely in their 20s – is another string to this impressive bow.
“We’ve relied on graduates because there’s no manual for electrospinning and there’s no one with experience in it,” says Hosie. “It’s about finding people with enthusiasm.”
The grand size of the Komodo is a good indication of the company’s ambition, but its “dial a fibre” service is where true growth and export value lies – the ability to infuse the mass-produced nano-spun fibres with certain extracts to create custom-made, functional fibres.
Right now the team is firmly thriving on the potential of collagen and the partnership it’s formed with New Zealand Extracts, which supplies natural extracts to a bunch of Kiwi companies. Their joint venture, Active Fibres and Revolution Fibres, hinges on the ability to blend plant additives into collagen-based nanofibre and is a massive opportunity in the cosmetics field.
Only about five percent of ingredients in ordinary skin rejuvenation creams are actually linked to skin rejuvenation. That means potentially 95 percent of the ingredients absorbed by your skin don’t actually provide you with any real benefits.
“What we’ve done is remove 95 percent of ingredients and made a raw collagen fibre with plant extracts entwined,” says Hosie.
So far the team has experimented with plant extracts called Vinanza Skin Performance Plus (anti-aging) and Vinanza Skin Repair Plus (skin repair). You simply wet a plant extract-infused collagen fibre pad and apply it to your skin.
The potential seems limitless. Grapes used to produce sauvignon blanc wine, for example, have high sun protection properties and if these chemicals could be successfully syphoned from the grapes by New Zealand Extracts, they could be weaved into the nanofibre and applied to skin for sun protection.
It all looks good in theory, but Hosie remains optimistically cautious. Having the product is one thing, he says, but finding a company at the right stage of its lifecycle to take on something quite new is a different story altogether.
“This actually challenges a lot of people’s existing products,” he says. “Someone who’s based a lot of their revenue on cream might not be so keen on the idea. It’s about making sure we own the concept and hopefully finding a New Zealand cosmetics company who can see the potential of this product and take it to market with us.”
McGhee says you need to ask the right questions, such as whether or not it’s going to be cost-effective, or achieve all the required properties, or whether the product can be understood in a straightforward way.
“A lot of it is translation into applications for different companies and that’s a very important part of our business,” says McGhee.
Beyond skincare, McGhee and Hosie suggest additive-infused fibres could be used to produce antibacterial dressings to treat burn victims, and pads for meat trays that suck out harmful bacteria.
It’s this wide scope of applications that continues to attract funding from MSI.
The company’s biggest asset, according to Campbell, is that while it’s creating a physical product, what it’s actually exporting is the ‘know-how’. And that, he says, is a pretty weightless technology. The lightness of the material is another advantage; one kilo of hoki skin collagen can make enough fibre to reach the sun. The shipping costs in relation to the value of the product are very low.
“The opportunity to take that and apply it to multiple products and export them all over the world is massive,” Campbell says.
Revolution Fibre fulfils MSI’s top three requirements when it comes to dishing out funding. Companies need to have the aspiration to be world class; they must have a sustainable advantage; and they need to be able to commercialise.
Clearly the company is well backed when it comes to government investment, but if it could pick fault with New Zealand’s innovation sector it would be the lack of idea sharing.
“One of the reasons we’re not commercialising ideas is that’s it’s very hard to get the ideas off the people doing the research,” says Hosie, pointing in particular to Crown Research Institutes and universities. “They tend to want to either own it, or sell it. What we’re trying to do is enable them to take it another step forward.”
McGhee believes we’re too quick to ship something off overseas. “We don’t see that there’s a pathway for effective commercialisation locally.”
If we want to have a stronger export market, we need to hold onto our innovation.
“Rather than selling that one percent of the total revenue, you actually start to get a bigger portion of it. That’s what we’re here to do really. We’re so keen and energised to work with people and move fast, but generally I get the sense amongst everybody in the area of a lack of trust.”
To date, the company has successfully spun more than 20 different types of materials, including collagen, zein (corn starch protein), cellulose acetate (a biopolymer derived from tree pulp) and nylon.
In the future, Hosie envisions New Zealand becoming a bit of an “electrospinning hub”.
“It’s about stepping in and actually creating that bridge provided to actually enable these inventions to become innovations.”
Machine names and output:
- Electrospinz machine: can cover a surface area of about 100mm2
- Komodo: 2000m2 of two metre fibre rolls per hour
- Chameleon: 2000 m2 of one metre fibre rolls per day
Global market for nano fibre products (US$)
2009: $80.7 million, 2015: $442.7 million, 2020: $2.2 billion. Source: BCC Research
- One kilo of hoki skin collagen can make enough fibre to reach the sun.
- 30km: the amount of nano fibre spun onto each HRV Seta filter