Over the years, Stellenbosch University (SU)'s technology transfer company Innovus has helped establish many spin-out companies. One such business is Stellenbosch Nanofiber Company (SNC) formed in 2011. Corporate Communication spoke to its founder and SU alumnus Dr Eugene Smit.
Can you tell us in short what SNC is all about?
SNC is a materials science company that was built around a patented technology for mass production of electrospun fibers. This technology was originally developed as part of my PhD studies at SU, and it allows production of very fine fibers (sometimes called nanofibers) on a commercial level.
Having a very high specific surface area and biomimicking (resembling something found in nature) capability, electrospun fibers are useful in many different areas including cosmetics, lightweight composite materials, energy materials like electrodes and catalysts for fuel cells and batteries, and various medical applications including scaffolds for tissue engineering, smart wound dressings, and drug delivery materials.
At SNC we unlock the enormous potential of electrospun fibers through the development and commercial scale manufacture of advanced materials in these different application areas. We help companies and research groups get to market faster by taking their electrospun fiber inventions from early stage concept, to fully scaled, technically validated, and commercially feasible status.
Why did you decide to start this company?
As an inventor-scientist, I have always been keen to develop useful products and technologies, and I feel that a good way to measure whether your technology is really beneficial to other people is to demonstrate that there are people out there willing to pay for what you invented. In this specific case, the technology for mass production of electrospun fibers has such a vast range of different potential applications and so the company was started to unlock this enormous potential and to make the world a better place.
You specialise in the manufacturing of advanced biomedical nanofibers. Are there specific reasons for this?
Our ultimate goal is to manufacture products in many of the areas where electrospun fibers can be used. However, as a young company we had quite a challenge deciding where to start. After evaluating opportunities in various markets, we identified the biomedical space as one where the need was really strong for the unique capabilities that we bring with electrospinning at large scale.
Our electrospun fibers are structurally very similar to the extracellular matrix around the cells in our tissues, so when you take cells and put them on electrospun synthetic fibers, they sort of feel at home and therefore carry on more naturally, resulting among other things, in wounds and tissues that heal faster and with less scarring.
The way we spin these fibers offers the opportunity to design and manufacture the next generation smart wound dressings, tissue engineering scaffolds for artificial organs, and drug-device combination medical devices that simultaneously treat a medical condition physically and pharmaceutically.
What are some of the products that you have developed since 2011?
We have worked on various medical products including an injectable controlled drug release material for reducing scarring in surgical wounds; and tissue engineering scaffolds for, among others, cartilage, skin, and bone repair. We're particularly proud of two specific products FiberScaff-RPE® and NanoTrix®:
- FiberScaff-RPE® is a tissue engineering scaffold for use in the culture of retinal pigment epithelium (RPE), which is the thin layer of cells behind the retina in the eye. These scaffolds are being used at the National Eye Institute of the National Institutes of Health in the USA to develop a therapy for treating diseased RPE in which they use a patient's own blood cells to create stem cells that are then differentiated into replacement RPE tissue. FiberScaff‑RPE® acts as a scaffold for the culture of these cells and then allows the doctor to transplant the newly cultured RPE tissue into the eye. The scaffold then degrades and disappears completely, leaving behind only the new replacement tissue. The scaffolds will be used in Phase 1 clinical trials for this therapy later this year.
- NanoTrix® is a proudly South African product that we developed with, and now manufacture for, the Gauteng-based Southern Medical Group of Companies. It is a temporary skin substitute dressing for second degree burn wounds and the incredible results obtained using this product has led to it receiving strong support from key opinion leaders in the South African burn wound treatment space. It is being used at various hospitals in South Africa, including the Red Cross Children's Hospital (Burns Unit) in Cape Town. NanoTrix® is currently commercially available only in South Africa but we are working with our client, Southern Medical, and supporting them in the process for obtaining regulatory approval towards selling this product in other regions, including the European Union and the USA.
What have been some of your company's other successes over the last few years?
We took our ball electrospinning technology from a small lab bench proof-of-concept to an industrial pilot scale machine in a little more than 2.5 years, and also built and certified our quality management systems in line with the international standards for good manufacturing practices for medical devices. We've built an awesome all‑South African team that continues to show the world that South Africa can compete, and make significant contributions, at the cutting edge of material sciences.
Which industries benefit most from the work that you do?
Currently most of what we do is in the medical space, but we are also active in development of ceramic nanofibers for composite and catalytic applications and developing some novel products for the cosmetics industry.
- Photo: Dr Eugene Smit (middle row, first from left) with the rest of his team. Members in the front row are holding a sheet of electrospun nanofibers produced in only a few minutes.