Dr. Mark Kelly (Research Director at BiODX), Dr Lucia Steenkamp (Researcher at CSIR) and Mr. Burt Rodrigues (founder, CEO and majority shareholder of BiODX) at the recent Innovation Bridge event where BiODX won a prestigious DST award. Image by BiODX.
“If you truly want to change the world, my friends, you must change your thinking.” – This quote, taken from the musical Time and originally penned by Dave Clark, is emblazoned across the webpage of BiODX, a South African biotechnology company that makes a versatile and eco-friendly biocide product. It is embodied in BiODX’s values, its business model, and in the biocide technology itself.
Take, for instance, the company’s innovative approach to the global problem of biofilms in cooling towers and heat exchangers in power stations: ‘killing with kindness’. These ecosystems of algae, bacteria and fungi grow on surfaces, and are notoriously difficult to get rid of.
“But,” says Jan Reynhardt, Business Development Manager at BiODX, “when you introduce our product to the biofilm, the organisms think it’s food – the product is thus ‘allowed’ into the biofilm, and the colony collapses.” This mechanism – tricking the organisms into mistaking the biocide for a meal, and then destroying their cell membranes – means the biocide is active against all sorts of bacteria, and can be used at different strengths for different applications.
Reynhardt adds that the cost of the treatment is negligible compared to the savings efficient heat transfer yields when those kinds of surfaces are clear of biofilms.
So what is the secret ingredient that BiODX deems to be a game-changer in the cleaning industry?
This is where their thinking has diverged: BiODX makes water-based, biocidal agents using citrus extracts.
“When a citrus fruit is picked off the tree, it goes into a state of shock and produces chemicals to protect itself against other living organisms. The protection system is there so that it can last a little bit longer and allow the seeds to propagate,” explains Reynhardt.
Company founder Burt Rodrigues had realised that this natural defence response would make citrus a promising source of environmentally-friendly disinfectant compounds. He then approached Dr Lucia Steenkamp at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) to investigate, and the BiODX project was born.
A decade and several million rand’s worth of investment later, BiODX has enhanced the biocide by adding a stabiliser that keeps the citrus extract active for a long time (and which adds further biocidal activity), and that it is water-based, which is perceived to be more environmentally-friendly than traditional chemical solvents.
The company now employs ten people and is gearing up for commercial production and distribution. Under the current directorship the company has received financial and business support from various government institutions, and more recently venture capital funding from the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA).
The next hurdle – and it’s a big one – is the regulatory environment.
“We are currently going through the process in the EU, and it will probably end up costing close to R10 million just to register the product,” says Reynhardt. “It is because of this that most companies fall to the wayside before they’ve even got a product onto the market. But we’re fortunate because the government has been very supportive of us.” In fact, at South Africa’s first Innovation Bridge event, BiODX won the DST award for being most likely to find widespread markets internationally.
Here is another example of how BiODX is thinking differently: instead of trying to compete with some of the world’s largest companies – chemical manufacturing giants in agriculture and water treatment – they are calling on these companies to collaborate.
“We’re engaging with these guys, and we’re saying, ‘you’ve already got the market and the distribution; this is a novel, eco-friendly product that you could distribute.’ That’s our marketing plan.”
And it seems to be working. There is interest in using the product for pre- and post-harvest disinfection, as a preservative in eco-friendly paints, and for water treatment. All with the benefit that employees working with the product will no longer be exposed to the harmful chemicals in traditional agents.
To meet the predicted demand through up-scaling, while at the same time not over-producing, requires some careful planning and orchestration. BiODX’s current pilot manufacturing plant produces batches of product, which are then sent to regulatory bodies or to potential customers for testing.
In the near future, they will move to new, larger labs in Modderfontein, and a number of microbiology and chemistry interns from various government initiatives will be joining their team soon.
With a few distributors on board and the right amount of market interest, Reynhardt is hoping that they can begin construction on a large production plant in 2016. That will allow them to employ 10-15 more people, and realise the full potential of this innovative product.
The future applications for BiODX’s product are almost limitless. “Once you have water and an organic source, bugs grow,” explains Reyhardt.
With such strong market potential and an alternative way of thinking about business, BiODX seems primed to succeed in an industry where more than 90% of start-ups fail.
Jan Reynhardt is the Business Development Executive Manager for BiODX – Biological Chemical Technologies (Pty) Ltd, with more than 15 years’ experience in manufacturing and process management. He is mainly responsible for commercialisation and up-scaling at BiODX. He has a PhD in Chemistry from the University of Ottawa and an MBA from the Gordon Institute of Business Science.