Research innovation to boost food safety

Inhibit Coatings Ltd—a business spun out of Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington with the potential to help prevent contamination during food production—is taking the next step in bringing their research to the world.

Inhibit Coatings Ltd team pose outside Victoria University of Wellington

Inhibit Coatings produce high-performance antimicrobial coatings for use on surfaces such as floors 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.”

Dr Tate 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,” Dr Tate says. “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%.”

Dr Tate 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,” Dr Tate says. “The next step is to produce our first tonne.”

He says that being able to produce at scale will become increasingly important as the company sets its sights on overseas markets.

Inhibit Coatings recently raised another $1.5 million in capital, which will help the company reach these markets and further develop their product. Among their new investors is New Zealand Innovation Booster (NZIB)—a partnership between Viclink, the University’s commercialisation arm, and financial services company Booster—who contributed $200,000.

“We’ll be using the $200,000 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 Dr Tate. “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.”

Dr Tate 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.”