News & Media

Tiny microbes, big idea

Zach Wolff, CEO of Exigence Technologies, will be in New York this week speaking at a high-level investment summit on food-processing technologies.

Earlier in the month, he was at another high-end, by-invitation-only conference in Boston speaking about how the Winnipeg company’s novel antimicrobial technology could disrupt current practice in the health and wellness vertical market.

In early April, he was in Houston at the Oil & Gas Center Innovation Showcase, yet another potential market for the technology Exigence has licensed from the University of Manitoba.

Companies such as Exigence would do just about anything to get invited to speak at these conferences because they attract potential customers, strategic partners and eager venture capital firms with deep pockets grateful to have a potential deal presented to them on a silver platter.

Stephan Groves, commercial director of Rethink Events, the London, England, company organizing the Future Food-Tech Summit in New York, said it is a very exclusive event.

"We have been getting 10 speaker requests every day for the past six weeks or so," Groves said. "They call, but that’s not how it works. We have an advisory board, and we find out who is really disruptive in the market, who is really interesting, and we go out and select those guys."

After emerging from the Asper School of Business at the University of Manitoba with a raw chemical invention about two years ago, Exigence is already on radar screens as far as the U.K. because of the unique characteristics of its germ-fighting technology called SymbiCoat and SymbiCide.

It can draw microbes in and then eliminate them using a breakthrough composite antimicrobial technology.

Studies show it’s much faster at getting rid of the germs, doesn’t induce microbial resistance, is non-corrosive and can be recharged using a simple procedure.

"We’re getting really positive reception from the biggest companies that deal with the problem," Wolff said.

Presentations at these high-level investment events have elevated the company’s profile.

"They are coming to us," he said. "It’s not like we are applying to attend.

"In terms of the buzz on a larger scale, people know what we are up to and see the potential as to where we are going."

The company is currently in confidential discussions, in some cases more than a year in, that have progressed to the transfer of materials and testing with companies throughout the supply chain that have aggregate revenues of more than $300 billion.

"We are quite a ways into these things," Wolff said. "There are delegations from the largest chemical companies in the world coming to Winnipeg hammering things out in the next six to eight weeks."

A New York investment bank is leading a fund-raising round for Exigence that Wolff said is hoped to raise close to $10 million before the end of this year.

And while it is heady stuff for the startup to be travelling in such circles, it is still a discussion about potential.

Exigence is targeting the food-processing sector where it believe its products can go a long way to eliminating the scary outbreaks of dangerous bacterial exposure. It is a hard market to crack with lots of regulatory hurdles and an existing and entrenched supply chain.

Wolff and partner Sheri Governo and their team — that now includes two PhDs, three engineers and two more scientists — started out targeting an antimicrobial application for hospital privacy curtains (and there is a chance that could still become the first commercial application).

Darren Fast, the executive director of the U of M’s Technology Transfer Office, said it has the potential for quite a number of markets and quite a number of different ways of effectively applying the same technology.

"It’s one of the best things about this technology and one of the worst things about it," Fast said. "Because if you had a technology with a crystal-clear market focus it’s easy to focus on that. But if you’re limited to only one market, the potential is not as big."

But because of the sensitivity and complexities of some of these markets, it makes for a more complex set of challenges to break into the market.

Exigence has raised $1.3 million locally and has a number of academic reports under its belt now to show the efficacy of the technology.

It’s also retained a Silicon Valley consulting company called NewCap Partners that has experience in antimicrobial technologies, both as investors and in helping other companies enter the space.

"It is an old market, and there have not been many breakthroughs," said Ken Epstein, one of the partners.

"There are a number of interesting reasons why a lot of big companies are talking to Exigence. Companies are looking for new products."

But Epstein has been through this enough to know it’s premature to suggest Exigence will be a success.

"Lab tests don’t do anything from a commercialization point of view. They just say it is interesting and could be applicable," said Epstein.

It is field tests comparing it to the existing products on the market that will make the difference.

"It’s still a long process, and the finish line is not directly in front of us," Wolff said. "And even if we get there, there will be another finish line."