The rise of nano fibres
Success for on-line equipment hire portal New eco-friendly storage battery system
Six years ago, Iain Hosie and Simon Feasey, with a group of graduate engineers and scientists – whose ideas may have appeared a little mad back then – started to see the potential in nanofibre technology.
“The technology was trapped in laboratories,” says Hosie, who is now the Managing Director of Revolution Fibres. “But we understood the concept from a scientific point of view, and realised by engineering it, you could take it from the lab to the factory f loor.”
From day one Revolution Fibres, a small yet highly innovative company based in the industrial heart of Henderson, set a goal to take nanofibre to global markets.
Nanofibres, for the uninitiated, are textiles made from super fine fibres between 100-500 nanometres in width (a human hair is 50,000 nm wide), and are made from a wide variety of polymers. These small fibres can create vast changes in mechanical strength, reactivity, and conductivity, among many other properties.
The commercialisation of nanofibre technology in New Zealand started with Revolution Fibres designed product lines such as filters for HRV Next Generation ventilation systems, the anti-allergy pillow liner Nanodream, and Kilwell fishing rods which are strengthened with nanofibre.
In the last two years the company has worked with a number of local and overseas companies to develop pioneering new products, including everything from satellite components, cosmetics, and decontamination apparatus through to facemasks, functional foods and acoustic linings.
And in November last year it became the first nanofibre producer in the world to meet aerospace industry standards with an AS9100c certification.
Hosie says this certification is a significant step in the transition of Revolution Fibres from a world class research and development company to offering quality assurance of its large-scale manufacturing services across a range of industries.
The goal, says Hosie, has always been to create a New Zealand-based nanofibre export industry and now, especially with the AS91000c certification, this is becoming a reality.
“It gives large industry confidence that this technology is no longer a lab-based experiment. It is manufactured to internationally recognised standards. It allows us to take the nanofibre technology and products we produce to the next level where there is a growing demand for textiles and materials that are stronger, lighter, and more functional. And the great thing about nanofibre is that although the technology is advanced and sometimes complex, the end product is actually useful for everyday things.”
The vast – seemingly endless – uses for nanofibre has been the most surprising aspect of Revolution Fibres’ business, says Hosie.
“The uses just keep popping up. It’s a genuine platform technology and the killer application has probably not even been discovered yet – which is exciting stuff.”
The limitless possibilities of the technology has also been one of the company’s biggest challenges because initially it was hard to position Revolution Fibres, or even describe what the company did.
However, by having a clear strategy, and working quickly to get products on the market and in use, the hurdle of defining what Revolution Fibres does has been overcome.
Another challenge has been financial capital because, says Hosie, it is tough finding investors with a long-term vision for science-led manufacturing in New Zealand.
“Most people are looking for the next mobile phone app, quick wins, and low-capital high return,” he says.
Then there’s the obstacle of getting noticed internationally because a New Zealand company such as Revolution Fibres is still seen as a “curiosity” rather than a viable business partner.
“With the international market you have to prove yourself time and time again, much more than the companies that are closer to market.”
However, with the help of government funding from Callaghan Innovation, solid backing from shareholders, and, most importantly, the dogged determination from the founders of the company and its mix of scientists and engineers to execute the vision, it is a recognised world leader in nanofibre technology in more ways than one.
For example, Revolution Fibres electro-spinning technology creates nanofibre out of a range of materials including polymers and, get this, natural sources such as collagen from hoki fish skins.
Hosie says hoki collagen has certain properties that make it useful for electrospinning, but more importantly from a New Zealand perspective, it is a sustainable fishery that allows them to make high value products from a waste product.
“By turning the collagen into a textile we then have a product that is useful for everything from cosmetics and healing wounds through to drug delivery, which are all very high-value products.”
And Hosie says New Zealand should be taking the example of hoki skins, and the waste to value equation, and applying it across many of its other primary industry sectors.
But back to nanofibre. Hosie remembers the quaint beginnings of the company: “There was a certain amount of naivety, bucket chemistry and the back-yard inventor aspect to the company. But our knowledge and skills developed rapidly with a real learning-through-doing approach.”
It’s this work ethic and approach that has allowed a small company in little old New Zealand to punch above its weight in the nanofibre stakes.
There are a number of other companies who have significant scale in nanofibre production but, according to Hosie, they are very silo-ed.
“For example, you can’t ask a filter company to make a collagen cosmetic face-mask. We analysed the market and realised the gap is between the f lourishing nanofibre research industry and the end-users who buy advanced textiles.
“We recognised nanofibre requires customisation to fit the end-user and the consumer’s requirements and we’ve strengthened that part of the business. It is now our core offering. Essentially Revolution Fibres are product developers who have the ability to manufacture those products.
“We keep a close eye on international developments in advanced materials, maintain an innovative research and development culture that is focused on commercialisation, and we focus on partnerships to help bring products to market, instead of going it alone.
“We have a lot of faith in our abilities – and we know we’re good at what we do. That’s why Revolution Fibres is so far ahead in regards to nanofibre manufacturing techniques and the depth of the intellectual property we have amassed. Only we understand the importance of this, and it’s truly world leading.”