Going Viral: Markets and Messaging for Smart Antimicrobial Materials

Several powerful demand factors are driving the need for improved antimicrobials, and their seriousness means the number and type of surfaces that need to be protected are growing in number. As the result of these trends, n-tech believes that there will be important business opportunities for “smart antimicrobials,” harnessing the power of smart materials to combat microbial breakouts.

Understanding the evolution of these materials and their targeted end markets will help developers and suppliers identify and capitalize on the best revenue opportunities.

Defining a Smart Antimicrobial Material

Determining what is a “smart” material and what is not can be somewhat fuzzy, but we believe the meaning of “smart antimicrobial” is clear enough to derive some basic potential capabilities.

Two technology options seem to have the best stories to tell here. Peptides seem to be truly smart by virtues of their ability to selectively kill microbes, but they are potentially costly and are not a mature technology. Polymers, on the other hand, can be directly imbued with various smart functionalities during their manufacturing, offering certain advantages compared with simply coating a surface, such as better efficacy through the material and maintaining activity even when damaged.

At the other end of the scale are silver preparations that are widely used but not often thought of as smart—but they should be, due to their inherent time-release and self-assembly capabilities. A nanopatterned surface also can be cleverly designed to prevent or passively kill or deactivate microbes.

In some cases nanotechnology can be viewed both as a kind of smart material, specifically brought to bear to make it more powerful. In other cases nanomaterial-based antimicrobials such as organosilane and black silicon are actually competing against smart materials.

We think that the broader trend in smart antimicrobials will be in intensifying their effectiveness, and more importantly combining them with self-cleaning (e.g. hydrophobic/super-hydrophobic and hydrophilic) and self-healing layers.

Healthcare: First and Foremost

Our expectations are that in the next few years, sales of smart antimicrobials will be focused on the medical and healthcare market. Undoubtedly this market has the most to gain—and lose—from antimicrobial coatings and surfaces; sanitation and prevention of disease is literally a matter of life and death.

Two main drivers are behind the rise of demand for more effective, and arguably “smarter” antimicrobial coatings and surfaces:

•    The risk of hospital-acquired infections (HAI) is surprisingly high even in modernized Western countries: hundreds of thousands of cases and tens of thousands of deaths annually.
•    Alongside that is growing concern over the rise of drug-resistant strains, including some especially nasty ones, against which conventional antibiotics are largely or entirely ineffective.

Put together, those two trends strongly incentivize healthcare organizations to pursue novel antimicrobial practices alongside their existing routines.

Practically every surface and item in a hospital could benefit from an additional antimicrobial coating, but our analysis suggests two kinds of surface areas represent the main markets for smart antimicrobials:

•    High-risk areas with high sensitivity, such as operating theaters, implants, and surgical tools; and
•    High-traffic/high-touch areas where transmission is most likely: equipment and surfaces in and around patients.

Various antimicrobial coatings, including smart ones, are already used in surfaces throughout the medical community, coatings tiles, grouts, ceramics, plastic tubing, etc. Many of these use cases also have a keen need for additional functions friendly to and extending their antimicrobial properties, such as self-cleaning and self-assembly. And of course, biocompatibility is a key concern as well.

We expect the most activity in smart antimicrobial coatings and surfaces to be directed to implanted medical devices, medical devices and systems components, some textiles and clothing (e.g. curtains and scrubs), and specific high-touchpoint building surfaces.

Given the substantial potential for cost savings, we expect big hospital chains will be the fastest adopters of smart antimicrobials. Small healthcare facilities will adopt these coatings at a slower pace; these include not only doctor and dentist offices, but also long-term care facilities where acquired infections are also on the rise.

There aren’t as many regulatory hurdles—yet—concerning smart antimicrobial coatings and surfaces outside of the drug delivery field, but we wouldn’t be surprised to see activity here in the near- to medium-term as such technologies are fast-tracked to this market. More immediate concerns to address are questions about environmental impact, which have dogged other antimicrobial options (e.g. triclosan) and now shadow nanosilver-based technologies.

Outside Healthcare: Five Specific Markets That Make Sense

While healthcare is the first and obvious end market for smart antimicrobial materials, more and more we are seeing these coatings and surfaces find traction among a laundry list of non-healthcare use cases, from clothing to electronics to buildings. Adoption of smart antimicrobial materials across them all might be slower, but marketing strategies are evolving in each area to build them up.

There’s another angle to adding smart antimicrobial coatings to many of these non-healthcare products, pitched to product manufacturers as a way to differentiate themselves in crowded marketplaces. In fact, for some higher-priced products there may even be an expectation for some extra functionality like this. For example, customer reviews for one kind of popular sport sandal indicate they specifically expect to see an antimicrobial functionality for products at that price point.

Consumer products:  For consumer-facing applications, messaging the need for a smart antimicrobial isn’t about facing a life-or-death sanitation protocol, but rather tapping into the “ick factor” to influence a decision for a higher-priced function, for products from cutting boards to countertops. Smart antimicrobials also could be part of a broader movement in consumer electronics to put more coatings on devices, where volumes eventually could be enormous.

That said, there doesn’t seem to be vast consumer clamor for added antimicrobial functionality, which means OEMs will need to keep driving the messaging home.

Clothing and textiles: Clothing and textiles are another good opportunity for smart antimicrobials, particularly ones where antimicrobials can be combined with self-cleaning (e.g. super-hydrophobic) functions. Note that the goal here isn’t merely to remove bad microbes, but also to achieve a secondary effect, primarily odor elimination.

Silver nanoparticle-based clothing coatings are already quite common, as are antimicrobial effects based on photocatalysis. Improved and smarter antimicrobials could do well here especially if combined with other smart functions such as self-cleaning (e.g. super-hydrophobic).

Of course clothing isn’t the only area of potential use of smart antimicrobial materials; we expect more use of them in carpets and curtains, particularly with multifunctional self-cleaning properties.

Food supply chain:  Food processing and water filtration are two other areas where smart antimicrobial coatings have clear value, with similar health and safety implications as in a medical context. Smart antimicrobials may help not only with contamination but avoid volatile compounds used in conventional antimicrobial agents. Typical use is on highest-risk surfaces such as kitchens and restrooms, but there also are deployments as embedded in flooring.

Construction: There are two ways of thinking about the opportunities for smart antimicrobials in buildings. One is for items in high-use and high-traffic areas like kiosks, kitchens, and restrooms. The other is for the buildings themselves, from HVAC to interior materials, not only to fight pathogens but also potentially address mold issues.

For the latter, we’re not hearing a lot of traction happening just yet. That said, fighting mold is a huge issue in construction with health risks that up the ante, so we believe that a smart antimicrobial should find a lot of appeal among builders. Unlike most other use cases, smart antimicrobial surfaces specifically targeting mold growth would most likely be in inaccessible or hidden areas (inside walls, attics, cellars, crawlspaces) where reapplication is essentially not feasible.

Transportation: Vehicles, airplanes, and marine vessels present different use cases for smart antimicrobials. The former seems to hinge more on adding comfort and cleanliness; the latter two, however, seem to hinge more directly on health-related issues in enclosed spaces. Otherwise many of the same arguments apply.

Like consumer electronics, the auto industry has its own broad trend to imbue improved functionality and aesthetics into surfaces, and smart antimicrobials materials have a role to play in that. Automotive interior surfaces could prove an important niche market for smart antimicrobials going forward. Seat fabrics can have an antimicrobial coating to germs, as well as a stain-resistant coating; a smart polymer that is at once self-healing and antimicrobial, and/or self-cleaning, may make some commercial sense as well.

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