Local News

RTP Startup Firm Uses Nanotechnology To Target Viruses

Posted November 10, 2006

— To say that the lights of free enterprise were turned on as well-known angel investor Tom Roberg watched a presentation about a new virus killing surface coating based on nanotechnology would be – well, spot on.

Someday soon, masks coated with an anti-viral material that activates when exposed to light could protect people from the ravages of a flu pandemic, the audience was told.

As the coating’s inventor at North Carolina State University provided more details, Roberg, a longtime executive at IBM and Global Software, grew more excited.

“I said that this is terrific and someone ought to commercialize it,” Roberg recalled.

Blanton Godfrey, the dean of the College of Textiles at NCSU, was the man to whom Roberg addressed the remark. “He said we are looking for someone to do it, and I said I might be interested.”

In fact, Roberg decided to invest in the company now known as

LaamScience

, Inc. A year later, Roberg is also out of retirement. “Retirement didn’t work for me,” he said with a laugh. He is acting as the firm’s chief executive officer.

Laam stands for Light Active Anti Microbials. The company has developed a coating based on nanotechnology that could be used to combat the spread of airborne viruses, such as severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS. Dyes and chemicals are added to cloth to create the coating.

A ‘Bug’ Killer At Nano Level

Stephen Michielsen, an associate professor at the College of Textiles, and Igor Stojiljkovic and Gordon Churchward, associate professors at Emory University’s School of Medicine, invented the technology. Michielsen, who at one time worked for DuPont researching fibers and polymers, was exploring the use of nanotechnology to modify the surfaces of polymers and fibers.

Michielsen’s research has enabled him to enhance antimicrobial performance, alter wetting characteristics, and modify staining performance of textiles. The dye and chemicals react to light, producing a chemical reaction that kills the viruses and bacteria.

The coating has also proved successful against a wide variety of “bugs”, indicating that unique formulations might not be required for specific diseases or bacteria.

“In the presence of light, a specific reaction takes place on the surface that makes the air poisonous to the microbes, yet harmless to people,” Michielsen said in a statement. “The coating doesn’t wear out and continually regenerates so it’s able to continue killing viruses again and again.”

To be part of a company that might keep a SARS or bird flu outbreak from growing into a pandemic was an opportunity Roberg couldn’t resist.

“I won’t tell you that God made me do it, but I really wanted to participate and to try to make something important happen,” he said. “This just felt right. Every company needs to have someone who runs it. I was so excited about the science and so excited about the opportunity that I really wanted to be involved.”

Roberg has the company moving at a fast pace, too.

LaamScience has already raised $430,000 from Roberg and the 10 angel investors brought to the company. It recently moved to the Becton Dickinson new business incubator in RTP.

Roberg, who said he decided to attend the NCSU presentation “literally at the last moment”, is convinced LaamScience could deliver blockbuster technology that could save lives around the world. He is not alone. “I’m talking to some potential investors in China,” he explained.

If there is one country where a SARS or bird flu pandemic is feared almost daily, it’s China. The country has already battled potentially devastating bird flu and SARS outbreaks.

“In this country, people are kind of blasé about bird flu and SARS,” Roberg said. “This stuff looks like it is especially effective with bird flu, SARS and the common flu.

“Let’s say we had a real pandemic. By the time any of the pharmaceutical firms put out a vaccine, it’s six months or more to fit that particular virus,” Roberg added. “Here, you have a wonderful ability to at least protect some people – maybe a whole lot of people – from dying in the interim.”

It’s Roberg’s belief that preparing millions of nanotech-coated masks in advance of a pandemic is a good idea. And LaamScience could be part of such a containment plan.

“At some point in time, the U.S. government is going to put some kind of anti-pandemic masks in cities across the country,” he said. “If you think about it, what makes sense is to put three masks or so per person in place so if something should happen there is no shortage.

“A short-range solution like this could really save lives, and that’s not a bad thing,” he added. “But will our government ever think that far ahead?”

NCSU Is Seeking Patent Protection

NCSU is seeking to patent the technology, and Roberg said extensive patent searches have established that “there’s nothing else out there like this at this time.”

LaamScience continues to test the material to determine longevity, the amount and kind of light needed to activate it, and under what circumstances it works best. Preliminary tests have been very positive with the coating killing virtually all viruses and bacteria.

The company is not only exploring coatings for masks but also for air filters that could be used in hospitals, homes, airplanes and businesses. Plans call for the building of prototypes for masks and devices to be inserted in filters.

Other opportunities include hospitals, Roberg said.

“A couple of hospitals are testing the material in waiting rooms and on other surfaces to see how well the product works in reducing the amount of hospital-acquired illnesses,” he said. “Hospitals could be a big market for us.”

LaamScience currently has two employees other than Roberg and Michielsen, who acts as chief scientist.

Even though Roberg has invested in LaamScience, he is more interested in developing a technology that could help mankind.

Should LaamScience be successful in that regard, he said, “I wouldn’t care if we made any money at all.”

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