Hitting the sweet spot:
Dominic Nicholas, Ethan Hunter and Nicholas Enslin have developed a new way to immobilise enzymes in a way that’s both cost-effective and sustainable.
For thousands of years, humans have been harnessing enzymes to make life easier and more enjoyable, from the ancient Babylonians who utilised the enzymes found in sugar to distil alcohol, to today’s laundry detergent which manipulates enzymes to remove stains and clean clothes.
Enzymes are commonplace in many industries around the world. But while they’ve been integral to modern-day living, the fact of the matter is that traditional processes of making and using enzymes haven’t adapted much to the growing need for sustainability. That was, however, until Immobazyme came along.
Founded towards the end of 2019 by university friends, Dominic Nicholas, Ethan Hunter and Nicholas Enslin – the novel biotech startup has developed a new enzyme immobilisation platform that’s both better for the planet and cheaper to employ.
What is an enzyme?
“Enzymes are found in all living organisms. They’re essentially microscopic biological machines that catalyse a desired chemical reaction. For example, in humans, they’re used to build muscle, destroy toxins and break down the food that we eat. There are thousands of different enzymes out there,” explains Dominic, the company’s Chief Executive Officer.
Because enzymes are good at producing very specific results, scientists have been exploring different ways of harnessing them to complete a range of tasks.
“The problem is that, to date, humans haven’t been using enzymes in a very sustainable way,” expands Chief Operations Officer, Ethan. “Older processes that are more resource intensive have proliferated, and it’s simply been too expensive to implement new approaches that could produce enzymes to the same efficiency, but in a way that is both budget-friendly, and lowers their footprint in terms of resource consumption, waste and pollution.”
With no one prepared to fit the bill for sustainable and business-savvy enzymes, a large gap emerged in the local market.
“This is where we come in,” continues Nicholas, Immobazyme’s Chief Technology Officer. “We’ve created a financially viable process to sustainably produce and immobilize enzymes by using a ‘magnet-like system’ that glues them to modified metals and organic cellulous. What’s more, our process is very modular – this means that we can replicate the process in any industry simply by swapping out the enzyme required.”
Immobazyme has fully leveraged the offerings on hand within the Stellenbosch ecosystem to their advantage. With a patent and funding in-hand, Immobazyme is now in the process of prototyping their product with businesses operating in enzyme-reliant industries.
From one lab to another
For the co-founders, Immobazyme was the perfect opportunity to combine a shared interest in molecular biology, social and environmental impact, along with an overwhelming desire to make something for themselves.
“The three of us met at Stellenbosch University, where we were all researching different uses for enzymes. One day, towards the end of a project – I think it was roughly the 4th of December 2019 – we were unwinding with a drink at Bohemia and started spit-balling ideas for what we’d like to do when we leave university,” recalls Dominic.
Ethan continues, “We started speaking about the potential for immobilising enzymes and how businesses use this process to make products – then we thought, well, why not create a solution for immobilising enzymes that’s cheaper and more readily available. That’s when Dominic shared his idea for forming a company. It was almost like, how can we democratise the system to empower businesses, which will in turn stimulate job creation, economic growth and socio-economic development.”
Shortly thereafter, the trio started the process of patenting their idea via Innovus, the university’s technology transfer office.
“With their help, we were able to develop the intellectual property and license it to Immobazyme,” says Nicholas. “But we were lucky with the timing. At around that time, Innovus was pushing to develop biotech companies in the area, but the few that were launching couldn’t afford to build research laboratories of their own, so their idea was to get a group of startups to collaborate and share the space and costs.”
To help things along, the team were also able to successfully secure funding, namely a pre-seed grant from the University Technology Fund (UTF), which later grew into a seven-digit seed investment through a co-investment scheme by the UTF and an undisclosed angel investor. With money in the bank, the team was able to pursue Immobazyme as a fulltime endeavour and buy the equipment and materials needed to develop a viable product for the market.
“That’s when the next round of challenges hit us. We’d all been professionally trained to work as scientists in a laboratory, but none of us had any idea about how to run a business,” laughs Ethan. “But with the funding, we were able to enrol at the LaunchLab, where we recently completed the ‘Countdown’ programme and have just started the ‘Lift-off’ course. These programmes have been a tremendous help in building our basic business acumen and proficiency. They’re really good at turning scientists into smart businesspeople.”
“We’re very thankful for all the support we’ve received over the past year. From the team at LaunchLab which has given us a great space to develop the business, to the Institute of Plant Biotechnology at Stellenbosch University which has generously granted us access to their laboratory space. These support structures greatly enabled Immobazyme’s existence, and we are very privileged to be a part of the Stellenbosch ecosystem.”
Refining the sugar industry
With a patent and funding in-hand, Immobazyme is now in the process of prototyping their product with businesses operating in enzyme-reliant industries.
“Our first priority is the South African sugar industry,” says Dominic. “It’s been struggling for a long time with profitability due to lowered demand for sugar and the impact of taxes. To make things worse, their production process can also be very inefficient, with the raw sugar often being contaminated during harvesting and processing. This undermines business profitability, which in turn threatens thousands of jobs across the country.”
Dominic explains that the contamination by bacteria turns the sugar into a thick gum called dextran, which lowers the sugar’s quality and makes it less sellable. It also severely reduces factory productivity.
“Our aim is that, by using our immobilized enzymes, we’ll be able to reduce the presence of dextran and help make sugar manufacturing more cost-effective for these businesses. And because we’re boosting their profit margins, we’re hoping they’ll be able to sustain more jobs and potentially employ more people over time.”
But sugar is just the first sector on Immobazyme’s list. In the future, the co-founders are wanting to explore the pharmaceutical industry and see how their solution could help drive down the costs associated with antibiotics and medication. They’re also interested in seeing how immobilised enzymes can combat climate change by investigating how they could potentially remove carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere.
“These are all long-term aspirations, but for now our goal is to focus on our current challenges and make sure that we lay a robust foundation for any future expansion,” concludes Nicholas.
To learn more about Immobazyme, go to www.immobazyme.com.