For many, sharks are terrifying. Beasts best avoided.
But for Anthony Brennan, Ph.D., they’re the secret to his entrepreneurial success — and quite possibly the answer to stopping the spread of superbugs and other illness-causing bacteria and viruses.
Under his direction, the veteran research engineer’s Aurora, Colo.- and Wheeling, Ill.-based biotechnology startup, Sharklet Technologies, Inc., has created an innovative sharkskin-mimicking, textured adhesive film that does something very special. It inhibits bacterial growth on a wide variety of surfaces, medical devices among them. And it does the job 100 hundred percent naturally, free of chemicals.
“We’re passionate about developing and bringing to market advanced, new surface technologies that manage microorganisms to make the world a healthier, environmentally safer and better place,” Brennan, a longtime University of Florida professor of materials science and engineering, told Free Enterprise. “And, yes, sharkskin is central to our success, as our product is a bio-inspired patterned designed by the visualization of shark scales.”
Founded in October 2007, his small, 35-employee company successfully copied the fierce predator’s mathematical skin (dermal denticle) micropatterns to build an invisible germ-fighting film that can be embossed onto a wide array of surfaces. These range from hospital doorknobs and hallway railings to medical office keyboards, to surgical tools, wound dressing and beyond.
The film is now being used in some U.S. hospitals, where it has been applied to hospital beds, device remote controls (in patient and other hospital rooms), along with chairs and interior walls. Where it’s not currently being applied, however, is on surgical instruments, specifically those made of stainless steel, as the film does not easily adhere to that particular material.
“But we are putting our film on many other medical devices, such as Foley urinary catheters,” Brennan, also Sharklet’s chief technology officer, said. “This is particularly effective, as 40 percent of all hospital-acquired infections are normally associated with infections on urinary catheters. We have been able to show a dramatic decrease in bacteria migration and bacteria colonization on these catheters, and we’re really pleased with these outcomes.”
That decrease can help reduce the overall number of hospital-acquired infections, which about two million people a year contract, according to Sharklet chief executive officer Mark Spiecker.
“Of those two million people, we spend about $30 billion a year treating those infections,” Spiecker said, “and 100,000 people a year die from those infections.”
Additional medical instruments and supplies Sharklet’s flagship film is applied to are endotracheal tubes, central venous catheters and healing-enhancing wound dressing.
Containing zero toxins or additives, and using no antimicrobials or antibiotics or metals, Sharklet’s pioneering film can reduce surface bacteria overall by 90 to 99.99 percent. In another hat-tip to its sharp-toothed, ocean-dwelling muse, it also inhibits the growth of algae and barnacles on boats and other seafaring vessels.
“We don’t change any chemistry of the material or surface or object we apply our film to,” Brennan pointed out, “and, thus, we don’t have the problem of creating new super bugs like antibiotics and antibacterial solutions often do. We’re inhibiting bugs, but we’re not killing them. We’re slowing them down to make them easier to handle.”
How It Works
Just like sharkskin, Sharklet’s peel-and-stick film products embody a micropattern that prevents the surfaces they’re adhered to from getting wet. Water slides right off of them.
“Bacteria needs water to get on the surface of things,” Brennan said. “Without the water, bacteria can’t attach to the surface. This makes our film exceptionally bacteria-inhibiting. It simply displays the sharkskin pattern that does not get wet. Simple as that.”
“In the big picture, we’re evaluating the many different bugs that people can contract. With MRSA, the so-called ‘super-bug,’ we’ve shown that these very dangerous bacteria are inhibited to attaching to our surface product.”
To produce the film, the veteran research engineer reproduced the sharkskin micropattern in a very small dimension, on the scale of microns.
“To help people imagine just how minuscule that is,” he said, “I tell them that a human hair is 50 microns in diameter, and our largest Sharklet offering is only 16 microns in size, so it’s about a third of the diameter of a human hair.”
Beginnings: Baited by Biomaterials
Brennan hasn’t always worked so closely with slippery substances inspired by sharks, but he has extensively researched biomaterials in general. Long before launching Sharklet Technologies, Inc., he worked in the dental biomaterials niche industry in Denver, Colo.
“I was always amazed at the differences in bacterial accumulation on dental restorative materials, which I was developing at the time,” he said.
Years later, when he started teaching at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Fla., the Office of Naval Research provided him with a $93,000 fund to pursue “a hare-brained idea” to prevent ship “biofouling.” An offbeat entrepreneurial light bulb went off, he says, while testing methods of keeping various pests and algae off of U.S. Navy vessels in Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.
“I thought this crazy idea would be important to stopping bugs from getting on surfaces,” he said, “and the U.S. Navy’s bugs are bugs on boats, including bacteria and zoospores, which are the green algae everybody sees. They’re barnacles, tubers, sponges — everything, all kinds of damaging things that need to be kept at bay.”
That crazy idea was, of course, to artificially replicate sharkskin. “Everybody I talked to about it said, ‘No, that’ll never work!” he said. “Sharks are too fast-moving.”
But one person believed in Brennan’s “hare-brained” vision, and that was a friend of his in Florida who often catches sharks and releases them.
“I sent this friend a dental impression kit, the same thing the doctor uses to take a mold of your teeth,” he recalled. “I asked him to use it to take an impression of actual sharkskin and, sure enough, he did.”
Brennan then replicated the impression his friend bravely took in dental stone. He looked at it under a microscope and realized that it had a super rough pattern and texture.
Next, he tried to draw the pattern.
“I wasn’t able to do it exactly like a sharkskin,” Brennan said, “but I was very close, and it worked! The first time we used it, it stopped the growth of green algae by 85 percent, and all the biologists I worked with were very excited. This led us to trying to fend off all the other bacteria and bugs, and, eventually, to the creation of Sharklet.”
Full Steam Ahead
Looking to the future, Brennan expects what he calls “strong early sales” to continue to grow, particularly now that Sharklet has partnered with several companies to boost production, Portland, Maine-based casting and release paper company Sappi Global among them.
“Doing this work feels wonderful, and I look forward to doing more of it as we expand,” he said. “What we’re creating really does reduce the attachment and transfer of bacteria between people and surfaces, and it’s a green technology in the truest sense. It has so many different opportunities and applications, and we’re only just scratching the surface, pun intended.”
He continued: “Overall, my social mission is to reduce the amount of bacteria and my engineering and entrepreneurial mission is to earn capital through Sharklet’s sales that will provide more and more people with job opportunities in a healthy environment.”
As for whether Brennan will look beyond sharks for entrepreneurial inspiration, he says he already is.
“I am constantly looking at different organisms and animals for inspiration,” he said. “Nature provides so many amazing designs for us to build off of as humans. The possibilities to leverage naturally occurring patterns into innovations to solve common problems are endless.
That’s why people call me a nerd, because everything I see is a useful topography or pattern. I figure, Mother Nature has figured things out, so I’m going to learn as much as I can from her.”
Brennan’s Best Advice for Fellow Entrepreneurs
“Even when you’re told your business or product or other idea is crazy, over and over again, you have to push forward and prove your idea. If someone says to you, ‘It can’t be done,’ that usually means that don’t know what they’re talking about. Ignore them and move on.
I’ve been very persistent and anybody who knows me knows that I don’t give up. Persistence is the number one thing every entrepreneur needs to practice and believe in and live. It’s almost got to be part of your genetic makeup. Be a persistent person. Never give up.”