From concept to commercialization
The model that led to the formation of NC State startup company BENANOVA is a positive one coming out of U.S. higher education, said Dr. Orlin Velev. Not necessarily a common one, though.
Velev, INVISTA professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering (CBE), began work in 2010 on an effective and environmentally benign method to combat bacteria by engineering nanoscale particles that add the antimicrobial potency of silver to a core of lignin. The process could lead to more efficient, and greener, antimicrobial products for use in the agricultural and personal care markets.
With assistance from the university’s Office of Technology Transfer and advice from seasoned professionals from industry and academics, Velev and Ph.D. candidate Alexander Richter formed a startup company called BENANOVA. Located in the Technology Incubator on Centennial Campus, BENANOVA is working with a Fortune 500 personal care products company on commercializing its technology. A recent Lemelson-MIT award and a paper on BENANOVA’s technique published in the journal Nature Nanotechnology further raised the discovery’s, invention’s and company’s profile.
“It has all the components of research, patenting, licensing and scaling up,” Velev said of the process that is taking NC State research out of the lab and into the marketplace.
A greener cleaner
The collaborative study published in Nature Nanotechnology details a method to synthesize silver-ion infused lignin nanoparticles coated with a charged polymer layer that helps them adhere to a targeted microbe and showed that the particles were able to wipe out a wide range of harmful bacteria, including E. coli.
As the nanoparticles kill the bacteria, they are depleted of silver, leaving behind a core made of lignin, a substance found in all plant cells. Those lignin cores biodegrade easily, minimizing their potential to impact the environment.
Richter, who came to NC State for Ph.D. studies in chemical engineering after earning an undergraduate degree at MCI University in Austria, was interested in starting a company based on his Ph.D. research at the time he joined the CBE graduate program. He is now BENANOVA’s CEO.
Richter has followed an unusual path to earning his Ph.D., doing much of the lab and commercial work for BENANOVA alongside his studies. Since this approach did not leave time to take time-demanding classes on campus that did not directly contribute to the Ph.D. or company, he took selected entrepreneurship classes online.
Richter then led a team of motivated engineering students to the Charlotte Venture Challenge business plan competition, winning 3rd place in the Graduate category. The company, too, has taken a different path by holding off on acquiring dedicated laboratory space until securing a revenue-bearing contract, rather than raising money and setting up a lab before engaging with potential customers. BENANOVA hired its second full time employee, a project development engineer with an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering from NC State, this year.
While BENANOVA’s first focus is working in the personal care product market, applying the company’s nanoparticle technology for agricultural uses might be the ultimate goal. As shown with silver as an active component, the particles could potentially also be used to improve the efficacy of pesticides.
Pesticide clumping, drying and runoff make agrochemicals less effective, costing farmers money and crop yields. BENANOVA’’s particles could offer a “stickier” solution, pesticides that are more likely to attach to the plants and get the job done.
“By making the particles stick to plants, one could potentially reduce pesticide runoff to enhance the crop-protection function on the plant where it’s needed. Pesticide runoff in the ground doesn’t protect the plant, but instead creates environmental burdens,” Richter said.
BENANOVA believes its solution could potentially reduce the chemicals used in certain plant protection applications by as much as 90 percent and save farmers more than 25 percent on pest-control initiatives.
The promise of those agricultural applications led to Richter being awarded a prestigious 2015 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize in the “Eat It” category for technology-based inventions that can improve food and agriculture.
Entrepreneurship as education
More than a decade ago, a postdoctoral researcher in Velev’s lab was making polymeric spheres, but the spheres were stretching and becoming thinner, forming polymer rods inside the liquid. As the researchers examined the process, they discovered it could be pushed further to make nanofibers, a potentially valuable industrial material. Xanofi, a Raleigh company that produces nanofibers for use in a variety of industrial applications, was born. Miles Wright, an experienced local entrepreneur, is the company’s CEO.
Both Xanofi and BENANOVA were helped by resources on campus, including assistance with patenting from the Office of Technology Transfer.
Velev sees encouraging and mentoring technology entrepreneurship as one component of his work as an educator, going so far as to include it in his statement of mutual expectation, a written description of a faculty member’s responsibilities.
“Educating our students only in engineering is not going to create jobs on its own,” Velev said. “We need to also educate them to be entrepreneurial, to make their own business and once they have it, work with a focus on making it successful.”