Monday, February 22, 2010
Shed weight with a safe pill, and more
Shed weight safely without surgery; grow crops with less water; heal wounds more quickly; dispose of diapers without harming the earth - Israel's Exotech Bio Solutions claims that these diverse goals are all attainable using the naturally derived, super-absorbent polymers (SAPs) that it has developed. "Most super-absorbent materials are acrylic byproducts of oil," Exotech co-CEO Mendy Axlerad explains to ISRAEL21c. "This presents many disadvantages, from high costs to environmental harm. We developed a new way to make super-absorbents from natural materials and chemicals, using a technology based on water."
When they get wet, SAPs swell and form a gel that traps fluid. Unaffected by the fluctuations of oil prices, this technology is considerably cheaper, uses less energy to produce and results in a fully biodegradable material with many potential applications.
A pill for weight loss
Four years ago, Exotech partnered with Boston-based PureTech Ventures to form Gelesis, a corporation that developed a pill to treat obesity using Exotech SAP. The pill expands in the stomach, causing a feeling of fullness, and is eliminated after several hours.
"We raised $20 million, and have just finished safety testing in humans with very good results," reports Axlerad. "Now we are in phase two, seeking confirmation that the concept works in helping people reduce their weight."
Scientists at Israel's Volcani Institute are testing Exotech's agricultural product, an SAP-filled reservoir that sits under the soil and provides plant roots with precisely the amount of water they require. The present top-down system of drip irrigation can be wasteful, especially when you take evaporation into account.
"This takes water control from the agriculturist to the plants," says Axlerad. "They know when to absorb water and when to stop. Our product can reduce water consumption by 60 to 80 percent, which is of interest not only in Israel but all over the world." The SAP itself degrades into ammonia, a natural fertilizer. After several agricultural cycles, it would be possible to stop using chemical fertilizers entirely.
Allowing patients to leave the hospital sooner
Another Exotech SAP could revolutionize the treatment of open wounds, burns, pressure sores and chronic ulcers. Dressings have to keep such wounds at a specific humidity, absorb exudates and introduce medication, all in a sterile medium.
Ordinarily, this requires hospital monitoring. But according to Axlerad, Exotech's self-sterilizing SAP material can perform these functions self-sufficiently, enabling patients to return home and to work quickly.
A research team at Tel Aviv's Beilinson Hospital is ready to begin testing this material once adequate funding is obtained.
Attracting investors is the final hurdle between technology and application. Founded in late 1999 as a research and development firm, Exotech operates on private capital. Axlerad and co-CEO Zvika Meiri together own 80 percent of the six-employee company.
Investments needed for large-scale production
Lack of investment funds has stalled the implementation of large-scale production of Exotech's patented material for "green" child and adult diapers and safe, super-absorbent tampons and nursing pads.
Testing on the material produced in the company's small Kiryat Gat facility, south of Tel Aviv, was completed by a German laboratory and major diaper manufacturers have expressed interest in replacing the oil-derived super-absorbents they currently use. But so far, Exotech hasn't secured enough capital to make sufficient SAP for a test-marketing run.
"To start production of SAP for personal hygiene products, we need an investment of $5 million, but the profit would be $1.5 million, after tax, at the end of the first year. This is a very profitable potential because we use cheaper raw materials," says Axelrad.
He and Meiri are mulling two solutions: Creating subsidiary companies to serve each niche market, similar to Gelesis; or putting more money directly into Exotech. Neither partner wants to move the business out of Israel.
"If we cannot see any other solution, maybe we would," concedes Axelrad, who served 25 years in the Israel Air Force, adding, "I am hopeful we can be successful here."