Healthy diagnosis

Kevin Matthews of Oxonica has diversified the company’s portfolio from fuel additives to medical applications — a move that seems to have paid off.

From a business point of view 2005 has proved to be something of a milestone for nanotechnology. This July shares in Oxford-based nanomaterials specialist Oxonica were successfully listed on AIM, making the company the first pure nanotech firm in Europe to trade on a stock exchange.

According to Oxonica’s chief executive Kevin Matthews, just three months on from commencement of trading, the company that he helped develop from an Oxford University spin-out is already reaping huge rewards from its decision to take the plunge.

‘Being listed has given us a great number of opportunities,’ said Matthews.  ‘We have had a particularly good reaction in the US and Asia. It has given us a lot of credibility because it basically means companies have confidence that we are not the sort of operation that will disappear overnight. If we need to raise extra money for a project it is also easier to get this from the markets rather than taking the private road. It’s a lot less complex.’

Matthews studied at Oxford University, attaining a DPhil in organic chemistry in 1989 before continuing his research career with a post-doctoral fellowship at the Bristol University.

From there he moved to a career in industry, working as senior scientist at ICI before moving to Albright & Wilson. Here he became involved with plant manufacturing technology and the technology development team, specialising in surface coatings. Soon he was identifying budding technologies, then setting up companies to further their development. Another of his responsibilities was portfolio rationalisation — singling out and nurturing promising discoveries produced by underperformers.

When Albright & Wilson was taken over by Rhodia, Matthews was appointed global business director, overseeing significant R&D expenditure while focusing on developing new businesses.

‘At this point I could see two paths: I had to look at whether I wanted to work within an industrial organisation or stay with the technology development angle. The answer was clear — and I left to join Oxonica,’ he said. ‘I really enjoy taking a technology from the lab bench to development.’

The Oxonica he joined in April 2001 was relatively new, having spun out from Oxford University in 1999 to commercialise intellectual property in nanomaterials. Oxonica was rich in technological success, but needed firm guidance towards developing a commercial focus. Matthews was happy to oblige, changing the company’s direction and making it more product oriented.

Commercialisation of its first line, Envirox Fuel Nanocatalyst, took place in 2003. The product, a cerium oxidebased diesel fuel additive that lowers emissions and can reduce fuel consumption by up to 10 per cent, was adopted by transport operator Stagecoach UK in September 2004 and by the company’s New Zealand arm this May.

‘Our aim with Envirox now is to consolidate the market and drive it as far as it can go,’ Matthews said. ‘A lot of trials are taking place throughout the world at the moment. We’re also looking at second-generation products and extending into biofuels, marine fuels and so on. The process will keep us busy for two or three years more.’

The company is focusing on developing larger markets, something that will no doubt have been aided by recent rises in the cost of fuel. ‘The environmental emissions reduction market is growing in importance,’ said Matthews. ‘However, proving that we can reduce the amount of fuel used gets the attention of a fleet. The environmental message is good to have but fuel economy is the clincher. Fleet managers like to be able to reduce pollution, but it isn’t possible to sell the product on this alone.’

Under Matthews the company has made sure its products are not limited to a single market. It recently scored another success in a partnership with chemist chain Boots (plans to merge with Alliance UniChem were recently announced), which incorporated nanoparticle sunscreen additive Optisol UV Absorber into its Soltan Facial Sun Defence Cream. When included in a sunscreen or face cream, Optisol gives high UV protection for more than eight hours while reducing the formation of free radicals and scavenging existing free radicals. These are believed to be a cause of skin ageing.

‘The price point for cosmetics is high, which made this move attractive to us,’ said Matthews. ‘However, the nanoparticles can also be used in coatings and polymers to avoid materials such as wood bleaching in the sun. They can protect plastics from weathering too. We will therefore soon be extending the Optisol range into other sectors.’

But entering the cosmetics industry has not been entirely trouble free. When the use of nanoparticles in creams was first announced, the press was filled with scare stories about the possible effects of the materials on the body. Matthews believes that to win over the public the nanotech industry must do more to convince its sceptics, particularly in the field of testing.

‘The current body of regulations may have to be reviewed,’ he said. ‘If you have a registered material and make the particles smaller it does not have to be reregistered. However, the properties may have changed.’

‘The question is: which particular tests are needed to prove that nanomaterials are OK? We went well beyond what the regulations require when developing our fuel additive. The debate must be carried out with toxicologists in this area.’

Matthews believes nanotechnology as a whole would be damaged if a situation arose where different laboratories produced conflicting results, causing uncertainty over safety and inducing panic among the British public. ‘It’s like the case of the MMR injection,’ he said. ‘I don’t know whether the data presented by the research that questioned its safety was flawed or whether there was any vested interest behind it. However, these are the issues that should have been dealt with early on to give the public confidence and make the situation clear.’

‘We take the whole area very seriously as a company. There is a risk of making nanotechnology into another case like [the now banned insecticide] DDT, yet not all nanoparticles behave in the same way. They have different properties so their toxicology is different.’

Proving that products are safe will be vital for the company’s next venture. Following its success in the transport and cosmetics sectors, Oxonica is looking to move into biodiagnostics through the development of a range of dye markers that will act as biolabels. These will be examined using Raman spectroscopy, an imaging technology whose use is just starting to take off.

‘It will allow clinicians to carry out multiplexed diagnostics, measuring several different things at a time,’ he said. ‘The technology is driven by adesire to reduce costs but allow quite sophisticated tests to be carried out. The idea behind it is prevention rather than cure. If you can determine what subtype of cancer a person has you can tailor their treatment.’

With such a diverse portfolio of products, it’s clear that Matthews plans to build on Oxonica’s current success and ensure the company remains a nanotech pioneer. Leading the way is never the easiest choice, but if all goes well Matthews may find that his business becomes a model for other firms trying to coax the science of the very small from the laboratory to the commercial arena.