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Posted: September 01, 2010

Small biz: not your usual imitation sharkskin

Mike Taylor

Imitation sharkskin brings to mind cowboy boots, gaudy belts and flashy wallets. But University of Florida professor Anthony Brennan looked more closely at the skin of a shark - through an electron microscope - and discovered that the distinct diamond pattern and tiny riblets were what kept micro-organisms from growing on the shark's body.

That was back in 2002, when the Office of Naval Research asked Brennan to help find chemical-free ways of combating the buildup of marine crustaceans on ships' hulls and submarines, a persistent problem that increases the drag on marine vessels up to 60 percent and hence adds to fuel costs.

Brennan's tests on sharkskin-like models yielded astonishing results: Green algae accumulation was reduced by 85 percent compared to smooth surfaces. From this discovery, a new company emerged - Sharklet Technologies.

Launched in 2007 out of a biotech incubator associated with the University of Florida, the company announced in mid-August that it was moving its corporate headquarters to the Bioscience Park Center, a biotech incubator in the Fitzsimons Life Science District in Aurora.

Reasons for the move were twofold: First, three of Sharklet's executives were already living in Denver and commuting to Florida for work. Second, Fitzsimons BioScience Park, where 25 to 30 new ventures are incubating at any given time, was a great fit for the emerging company.

"They offer great laboratory resources," said Sharklet CEO Mark Spiecker. "And Denver's a very centrally located area. Different investors and partners come in to see us and work with us. We also have folks who'll help small companies like ours with business planning, introductions to venture capital communities, introductions to strategic partners. And we've got the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center right across the street."

The company's target markets have expanded to include not only ocean vessels but hospitals and laboratories, where keeping surfaces bacteria-free is crucial.
Tests show that micro-organisms such as staph and E. coli find the Sharklet surface inhospitable. Investors have taken notice of the potential applications. In June last year, Sharklet closed on $1.5 million in Series A financing led by Austin, Texas-based Limestone Ventures.

In June, the company began marketing SafeTouch, an adhesive-backed disposable "skin" that has landed some hospital clients and is generating revenues, though Sharklet CEO Mark Spiecker wouldn't say how much.

Bacteria can grow and divide every 20 minutes, and one single bacteria cell can become more than 8 million cells in less than 24 hours. The company says that Sharklet SafeTouch reduces bacteria on high-touch surfaces by 80 percent. Thus, it could be a valuable adjunct to chemical cleaners which, while effective, can create more resistant bacteria over time.

Another market for which Sharklet has high hopes is urinary catheters. Catheter-associated urinary tract infections account for about 40 percent of infections in hospitals and nursing homes. The company has developed the Sharklet Urinary Catheter that Spiecker estimates is about two years from commercializing because it will require FDA approval.

Sharklet Technologies also has partnered with a mold-injection company with the aim of producing consumer goods with the Sharklet surface.

None of these applications will bear fruit overnight. In the meantime, it helps to be surrounded by other emerging science companies and entrepreneurs. Who knows, a strategic partnership could emerge from a friendly chat in the lunchroom.

"You might just talk to the person who's developing a medical instrument, and its only glitch is that it has an infection risk," says Jill Sikora Farnham, executive director of the Fitzsimons Redevelopment Authority. "And you're like, ‘I have a product for you!' So the synergies might just lead to both of those entrepreneurs saying, ‘Maybe we have a connection here.' We do see that happening."
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Mike Taylor is the managing editor of ColoradoBiz. He writes about small-business money issues and how startups are launched. Email him at mtaylor@cobizmag.com.

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