The local tech company is partnering with a South Korean firm to bring its nanogold process to market.
Oceanit is like Q in James Bond Movies: the quartermaster who is always inventing things,” says Ian Kitajima, director of corporate development and “technology sherpa” at the Downtown Honolulu-based technology company.
Oceanit employs 150 engineers, scientists and researchers, mostly in Hawai‘i, but also in California; Texas; Washington, D.C.; and other locations. Recent innovations have included 3D-printed concrete reefs to help mitigate coastal erosion (Project Coral); wearable cooling packs to stay comfortable in hot conditions (19°N); and even a wireless system for deep-sea, high-speed data transfer called ULTRA, for underwater laser telecommunications and remote access. Yes, it does sound like a James Bond movie.
Kitajima says, Oceanit “used to spin out technologies − I’ve worked on three venture-funded companies over the last 15 years − but the challenge with venture capital in Hawai‘i is we have seed money but not the follow-on investment. That comes from mainland investors, and then they want to move the company away. It’s not a scalable model.
“After three of those, we wanted to find another way to have funding to commercialize a technology, to actually make it into a product.”
Needs a Visionary Client
Kitajima kept his feelers out for a commercial customer who wanted to pivot in a new direction. “You’re talking about something that requires a visionary client,” says Kitajima. “They have to be willing to put up the money, to take the risk, and have to spend the money to buy equipment and create a facility. When you’re doing something you haven’t done before, it could fail. Going from the lab to scale, it can simply fail or it could prove to be too expensive. It requires a high level of trust on both sides.”
Oceanit found its partner in a South Korean automotive materials company that had been diversifying by entering the cosmetics business; Kitajima declines to name the company at this time.
If vehicles to vanities seems like a strange turn, consider this: South Korea is one of the world’s fastest-growing beauty markets. Research firm Market Data Forecast assessed the value of the K-beauty products market at $10.3 billion in 2021 and predicted a compound annual growth rate of 11.3% through 2026.
Kitajima says the client was using nanogold particles in skin-care products like serums, but their products were oil-based and they wanted it to be water-based. Nanogold refers to tiny particles of gold, with a diameter of 1 to 100 nanometers. Just how tiny is that? A sheet of paper is about 100,000 nanometers thick, according to the National Nanotechnology Initiative, while a single gold atom is about a third of a nanometer in size.
In addition to seeking a water-based technology, the auto company also struggled to scale its creation to produce enough of the nanogold.
Tiny Gold Particles
Kitajima challenged Kathryn Anderson, a senior scientist at Oceanit who specializes in polymer chemistry, to come up with a solution. She and her team created a way to use the nanogold particles in water, which makes it more versatile for use in products such as sunscreen, toner, lotions and vitamins.
Anderson says they also added a peptide functionality, with peptides attaching onto the nanogold. The nanogold is the delivery system that penetrates the skin’s dermis, where the amino acids in the peptide mimic collagen, helping skin to renew itself, according to Anderson.
Oceanit has a patent pending on the technology.
The project included not only coming up with the process, but also figuring out how to scale it, automate it, spec out equipment and work out any quality control, safety and regulatory issues. Currently, Oceanit is in its third and final phase, working with its partner in South Korea to design and build their new manufacturing facility.
This technology could eventually be used in the health care sector, says Anderson, to help with post-surgical healing among other things. In fact, gold nanoparticles are being researched and developed globally for use in a variety of medical fields, including dentistry and oncology, as well as for drug delivery, imaging and biosensors.
Imaging and biosensors using gold? James Bond would love it.