A lot has been said lately about personal hygiene, outbreak prevention and a certain type of virus. A lot has been said about having to take strict measures, if at times only as a precaution, to limit the spread of COVID-19. A lot has been said because it needed to be said.
This story, while touching upon those topics, will be a different kind. It will be about how an existing, highly innovative technology has found its place in the current market by taking an integral approach to making products and surfaces cleaner and safer.
Parx Materials, a Rotterdam-based scale-up founded by Michaël van der Jagt and Michele Fiori, has developed and patented a technology that can make plastics antimicrobial by using a trace element found in the human body. More recently, the team has established that their solution can also be rather effective against certain viruses.
A technology based on a nutrient element that all humans need
For Michaël and Michele, the journey of Parx Materials began almost 10 years ago. Having known each other for a long time, the two co-founders were eager to start a business together.
“Back then, we came across a university professor, who is now retired, and he fascinated us with his ideas on taking a holistic approach to chemistry and material developments,” Michaël says. “Being able to copy the human defence mechanism in the skin was one of his hypotheses and we challenged him to see if it could be done.”
The rest is history.
It took the team years of development, tests and research to have the first proof of concept on the table. They had found a novel way of working with polymers so they made sure to patent it as soon as possible.
The key to their technology is that it uses “a nutrient element that all humans, animals and plants need to grow” and is not based on any toxic substances, something that Michaël says differentiates Parx from many other players in the market.
“Our technology is integrated during the manufacturing process of the plastic product and becomes an intrinsic part of the material. As a result, the plastic gains new and better properties, making it very difficult for bacteria to latch on to it. The fact that it doesn’t leach out of the material makes it a much safer and sustainable solution, too.”
The company has a team of eight, spread across Rotterdam and Bologna. Their R&D and production are based in Italy and while most of it is currently done in cooperation with contractors, the plan is for Parx to have their own scaled-up facility by the end of 2020.
It is quite surprising to see how little we all know about viruses and how they behave.
Michaël van der Jagt - co-fouder Parx Materials
Scaling an antimicrobial technology in times of a pandemic
Without a doubt, the COVID-19 outbreak has brought a lot of attention to hygiene and disease prevention over the past months. For a company like Parx, this has translated into plenty of inquiries into their technology and a list of (potential) new customers. “What we see is that companies would like to have an integrated hygiene mechanism while not losing sight of the sustainability element of their materials,” Michaël says.
In light of current events, the team has been testing their technology more widely to include certain viruses and to determine its effectiveness against them.
“It is quite surprising to see how little we all know about viruses and how they behave,” Michaël says.
“There are hardly any scientific studies on viruses so the area is a big unknown.” Having a technology or a substance that works against bacteria - which they have already proven - is no guarantee it will work against viruses, he adds. This is why it all needs to be thoroughly tested.
“What we confirmed is that our technology is effective against the Human Corona 229E (a virus with a lot of similarities to the Covid-19 coronavirus), reducing it five times faster than on materials without the technology. And we have seen it reduces the H1N1 virus on textiles by 99,99% in just eight hours. So for us, this is a very strong confirmation that the functionality our skin has against bacteria and viruses is well copied into plastics.”
The outcome of those tests is something a lot of Parx’s customers have been waiting for eagerly, and the positive results have given them the green light to move forward with integrating the technology into their own products. The applications are broad and span from car interiors through fast food trays and food packaging, to pens and even face masks.
“We try to focus on food packaging solutions as we see more and more results with our technology in the packaging of meat and fish, for example, so these products stay fresher for longer. And having a longer shelf life can mean a great contribution to reducing food waste and CO2 emissions,” Michaël says. “We have one of the large food producers considering to use the technology for the outside of their packaging. This is really the kind of request that we would not have received without an outbreak as we have now.”
Parx Materials is not only an example of a high-tech, high-impact company, but also of one that identifies the opportunities in the current market and seizes them.
It is currently expanding its team of engineers and is working hard on scaling their production capacity. According to Michaël, the plan for the end of 2020 is for them to have increased their monthly capacity by 100 times compared to the beginning of the year. Those are no small goals to have, but if anything, the team has proven to be well on their way to reaching them.
Written by: Mina Nacheva