Sharklet Technologies looks to shark skin for bacterial protection

By: Phil Lindeman Monday August 18, 2014 Tags: Aurora, Mark Spiecker, Sharklet


By Phil Lindeman


AURORA -- At Sharklet Technologies, researchers are tinkering with technology some 400 million years in the making.

Founded in landlocked Aurora, the small startup was built on a deceptively simple concept: Shark skin is a natural barrier against microbes and bacteria, the same prolific organisms that plague docks and marinas and cruise liners across the world.

Human skin is similar - it also protects against organisms, albeit in a much blunter fashion - but the minute differences make it enticing for biotech innovators. Shark skin is etched with microscopic grooves and patterns. It's the sort of surface bacteria can't inhabit, and without an inviting home to grow and divide, most bacteria die after just 18 minutes.

Since 2007, the team at Sharklet has been translating the shark's ocean-borne defense system into a technology that's made to battle a very real, very human concern: bacterial resistance.

"So much of our technology uses chemicals or heavy metals to prevent bacterial growth," says Mark Spiecker, who joined the company in 2008 and took over as CEO in 2010 when it moved to the Bioscience Park Center incubator.

"We don't need that. With our surface, if the bacteria can't attach, they don't have the chance to grow. We come at that problem from an entirely new angle."

A growing problem

The short, hyperactive life cycle of bacteria begins (and ends) with a surface. When a single germ finds a welcoming habitat - say, a cell phone kept warm and cozy in a pocket or purse - it immediately begins replicating, sometimes splitting into upwards of eight million cells in 24 hours.

As Spiecker explains, Sharklet has essentially recreated shark skin for better health, sans the toxic chemicals and additives found in most antibacterial products. The company can cover just about any surface - medical devices, smartphone cases, adhesive film rolls - in millions of raised diamonds, like an argyle pattern shrunk to microscopic proportions.

Like shark skin, that patented formation alone stops bacterial growth before it begins, and when translated to dry land, the artificial, micro-textured surface works in almost the exact same fashion as its organic counterpart.

"It seemed like such an elegant solution for the bacterial problems," Spiecker says. "When you think about your everyday life, everything has a textures. There's a texture on the dashboard of my car, so the idea of being able to deploy textures in place of existing textures is an important idea, and it will become more important as bacteria keeps building resistance to chemicals."

And therein lies the rub. From hospitals to daycares, bacteria growth is usually combated with antibacterial wipes and sprays.

But bacteria has fought back in turn. Take the medical industry: Despite strict health standards, the Centers for Disease Control reports that nearly two million people each year are infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Of those two million, 23,000 die from the infections.

Ever since antibiotics became widely used in the 1940s, bacteria have become frighteningly adept at fighting off such chemical-based agents. For Spiecker and Sharklet, one of the largest (yet easily preventable) concerns is hospital-acquired infections - post-treatment complications caused almost solely by surface contamination. Spiecker claims 800,000 of the two million cases reported by the CDC are directly related to urinary catheters.

One of Sharklet's first major partners, the Indiana-based biotech firm Cook Medical, is ready to erase those figures. Cook Medical is a leading supplier of urinary catheters in the U.S., and after partnering with Sharklet in late 2011, researchers began testing surfaces with medical-grade products. A 2011 study in the Journal of Endourology found the surfaces effectively deter E. coli growth, along with that of numerous Staph infections.

If the results stay consistent - and production becomes affordable - the surfaces could be Cook Medical's solution to bacterial resistance.

"It would require a significant genetic adaption for the bacteria to overcome our surface," Spiecker says. "It would be like us going from six feet tall to eight feet tall overnight. We really don't see that as a concern."

Ready for market

Before the micro-surfaced catheters or any other medical products make it to the public, Sharklet's next big hurdle is affordable production.

Like any biotech company, the concept requires years of testing and re-testing before it can be commercialized, but Spiecker says his team is on the cusp of breaking that barrier.

Along with Cook Medical, the startup's other major partner is 10x Microstructures, a Chicago-based manufacturer with electroforming technology. It can shrink pre-made patterns - say, the Sharklet diamonds - down to a billionth of their original size. It's the same process used for LED lights, and with increasing availability, Spiecker expects the cost of mass-producing Sharklet surfaces to drop.

"We're spent the last seven years testing and tweaking this really cool idea, and now we're ready to see it arrive on the market," Spiecker says.

And the startup's funding is growing in turn. Over the past few years, Sharklet was awarded $5 million in grant money through the National Institute of Health's Small Business Innovation Research Program. Spiecker hopes to pair those funds with another $5-$10 million over the next six months - the final boost the company needs to begin commercial production.

Until then, the Bioscience Park Center and surrounding Fitzsimons Life Science District is invaluable. After all, Sharklet is still based in dry Colorado - far removed from the University of Florida labs from which the technology was licensed - but with industry-leading neighbors like the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, Spiecker is in enviable company.

"Colorado is just a great place to get a small company up and running," Spiecker says. "We've been lucky enough to have access to so many resources that many businesses don't have.

"We're excited to be here in Colorado, we're excited to bring our product to the marketplace in the next few years and we're excited to keep moving forward."

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Phil Lindeman

About the Author: Phil Lindeman

Phil Lindeman is an award-winning freelance reporter with experience writing and editing for magazines, daily newspapers and websites. As a Colorado native, Phil has kept a close eye on local innovators and became intimately familiar with Northern Colorado while earning a journalism degree from Colorado State University. Phil is currently based in Vail, where he covers arts, entertainment and culture for a weekly magazine, Sneak Peak, in between wintertime laps through Vail's back bowls.