Environment & Engineering

Boosting food safety

Published Jan 15, 2020

Inhibit Coatings Ltd—a business spun out of Victoria University of Wellington research that has the potential to help prevent Listeria contamination during food production—recently completed a $1.5 million capital raise. Among the investors is New Zealand Innovation Booster (NZIB)—a partnership between Wellington UniVentures and financial services company Booster—who contributed $200k to the total raise.

Inhibit Coatings produce high-performance antimicrobial coatings that use a broad-spectrum silver antimicrobial agent to effectively kill over 650 different types of microorganisms, including Escherichia coli, Salmonella, Norovirus, Campylobacter and Listeria monocytogenes.

“With five food recalls due to Listeria in New Zealand this year alone, the first application of our technology is focused on providing floor coatings for the food and beverage manufacturing industry,” says Dr Eldon Tate, who co-founded Inhibit Coatings with his PhD supervisor, Professor Jim Johnston, from the University’s School of Chemical and Physical Sciences. “Floors are a common site for harbouring dangerous microorganisms which can survive in the cracks of floors and walls, and can be quickly spread around a plant—often via the soles of workers’ shoes.”

Eldon says that the frequent cleaning and sanitisation regimes required in food processing facilities mean that the active ingredients used in traditional, additive-based antimicrobial floor coatings are easily washed out—often ending up in drains which ultimately lead to the environment where they can destroy sensitive habitats and marine life. 

“What makes our technology different from current coating systems is that our active ingredient is bound to the polymer resin,” says Eldon. “This means it won’t wash out and will retain its antimicrobial effectiveness for the lifetime of the coating, with no adverse effects on the physical properties of the coating system. It’s also incredibly effective, proven to reduce common bacteria such as E. coli and Listeria by over 99.993%.”

Eldon says that these benefits make it suitable for multiple future applications which were previously unavailable to the antimicrobial coatings industry. 

“Microbial contamination can also have life-threatening consequences in the medical and healthcare sectors, so we’ll focus on applying our tech in these industries next,” he says. “And because it can be used to prevent the spread of bacteria, the heating, ventilation and air conditioning industry is also on our radar!”

A partnership with New Zealand company Polymer Group Ltd has enabled Inhibit Coatings to prove the technology is scalable for multiple resin systems including epoxies, urethanes, acrylics and polyamides. “We’ve gone from producing 5 g to 100 kg batch sizes,” says Eldon. “The next step is to produce our first tonne.” He says that being able to produce their product at scale will become increasingly important as the company sets its sights on overseas markets.

“We’ll be using the $200k from NZIB, along with the other investment we secured in our latest capital raise, to protect our IP internationally and to obtain regulatory approvals in the United States to open ourselves up to the global market,” says Eldon. “It’s an expensive but absolutely essential part of our growth so we’re very grateful to have the backing of Booster and our other investors.” 

Eldon says the money will also enable them to continue expanding their team. “We’ve already hired one of Professor Johnston’s PhD graduates full-time, and we’re offering summer scholarships this year to students who want to get involved with real-world, application-focused research. He says it’s all part of a desire to grow a deep-tech ecosystem in New Zealand. “We have a huge amount of science talent here and we want to see that talent being translated into growing our economy.”

Dr Anne Barnett, Wellington UniVentures' CEO, says the NZIB funding reflects the shared commitment of the University and Booster to encourage entrepreneurialism and economic growth in New Zealand. “Support from NZIB makes a real difference to helping start-ups like Inhibit Coatings to grow faster, and make them more attractive to other investors,” says Anne.