WEST LAFAYETTE and NEW ALBANY – It won’t be long until Americans see antimicrobial tray tables on their flights, antimicrobial seats at sports stadiums and antimicrobial features in their car’s interior—and it all centers on a technology invented at Purdue University, commercialized in southeast Indiana and soon manufactured there as well. The germ-killing molecular technology, called Nouvex, can be embedded in a long list of end products to make them antimicrobial, and the pandemic has created a tsunami-sized wave of interest that a small Hoosier startup is riding to the marketplace.
“Nouvex is right on the edge of exploding in terms of business development, and we’re excited about where it’s headed,” says Paul Moses, a Poly Group LLC board member.
Based in the Purdue Research Park of Southeast Indiana, Poly Group is commercializing Nouvex and recently inked its first commercial manufacturing agreement with another Indiana company, Madison-based Royer Corp. The technology, which Moses says is on the doorstep of multiple commercial deals, was first discovered in Dr. Jeffrey Youngblood’s lab at Purdue. The materials engineering professor describes it as a polymer that can be added to other materials, such as plastic, to kill bacteria and deactivate viruses when they simply come into contact with the surface of the object.
“But at the same time, it doesn’t kill you,” laughs Youngblood. “That’s a very important distinction; there are a lot of things that kill bacteria, but a lot of them kill you too.”
Nouvex wages war against germs at a microscopic level. The polymer molecule has thousands of “side chains” that Youngblood likens to “knives or pins.” When bacteria land on a Nouvex-infused object’s surface, for example, the polymer’s thousands of “pins” attack the wall of the bacterial cell, popping it much like a balloon, explains Youngblood. He says the class of polymers has been known in literature for years, “but they weren’t very good for people,” so his lab moderated the discovery by adding a different molecule that’s biocompatible.
“Usually, when you dilute the active ingredient of something, it makes it less active; what happened instead is, it became biocompatible and more active. Hence, Nouvex was born,” says Youngblood. “It was so drastic that we had trouble believing how good it was at first, because it was like nothing else we’d seen in terms of activity in killing bacteria—and nasty bacteria too: pathogenic bacteria, drug-resistant bacteria, all types of stuff.”
Poly Group licensed the technology in 2010 and has taken Nouvex through the regulatory process; it’s now registered as an antimicrobial preservative with the Environmental Protection Agency. While interest has steadily grown throughout the years, the pandemic caused a huge spike in business development and sparked Nouvex’s first commercial deal. Royer will soon begin manufacturing custom injection-molded plastic products embedded with Nouvex.
“I think you’ll quickly see the integration of Nouvex in injection-molded plastics in the airline, entertainment and hospitality industries. We can’t be more specific right now, because we’re under nondisclosure agreements. I think you’ll definitely see it in the automotive manufacturing world,” says Moses. “We also have other companies that are in the process of taking Nouvex to market, including one that’s working on a urinary catheter…a company that’s working on it in vinyl, like seat covers and cushions, and we have a major steel manufacturer that wants to potentially coat its thin gauge steel with Nouvex. We could go on and on.”
Poly Group leaders expect an even bigger surge in business pending test results evaluating Nouvex’s ability to kill the novel coronavirus; early results are positive, and Moses says the full report “should come any day now.” Nouvex has been proven effective against other coronaviruses, MRSA, Salmonella and E. coli.
Poly Group co-founder and board member Doug Hamilton says several of the pending commercial agreements are with Indiana companies, which is an intentional effort, “because we want to benefit the Indiana economy when Nouvex comes to market.” And the scientist who discovered Nouvex acknowledges, without Poly Group’s business acumen, it would have “been one of those cool innovations that sat on a shelf.”
“It’s always been a goal of mine to go into Walmart and pick up something, and 18 ingredients deep there’s a word you can’t pronounce,” says Youngblood. “And I can say, ‘That’s my innovation, and it’s helping people.’”
“We’ve seen a lot of tragedy since the emergence of COVID-19. Once we get the novel coronavirus on our registration and get it fully into market, provided the data all comes back as we think it will, I think it’s going to ultimately save lives and make our world a safer place,” says Moses. “It will be something all of us, as Hoosiers, will be proud to say started here.”