Welcome to the era of the deadly superbug. Antibiotic-resistant viruses like MRSA have been wreaking havoc for years now – threatening the world as we know it.
It’s predicted that the number of deaths linked to antimicrobial resistance will shoot up to 10m by 2050, from around 700,000 deaths now. This resistance looks set to overtake cancer as being the primary cause of death in the world.
Worryingly, a significant proportion of infections are acquired from hospitals. In the US, one in 25 patients has at least one healthcare-associated infection (HAI) at any given time. And according to a 2014 study, of the 722,000 HAIs reported in US hospitals in one year, 75,000 patients died.
Preventative measures that can ward off these deadly diseases are crucial – especially given that one of the biggest causes of cross-transmission in hospitals stems from hand hygiene (or lack thereof).
But research and development company Chemical Intelligence hopes to prevent this.
When I meet the company’s owner, Rob Gros, he doesn’t strike me as a scientist. Not that I expect him to rock up in a lab coat, but he seems more of an amiable businessman than a chemistry-loving academic.
In fact, Gros is a computer programmer turned entrepreneur who has developed a product that could be instrumental in reducing infection on a worldwide scale.
He has developed a bug-killing molecule which can be introduced into disposable medical devices such as gloves to kill off harmful bacteria, preventing them from spreading.
While Gros isn’t a scientist, he’s not new to the healthcare world, having had commercial success with a flu pack that was used widely in the swine flu epidemic of 2009.
He also spent years selling rubber gloves to the NHS, which was the catalyst for his current concept. “I remember laying the gloves out in the box and thinking ‘no one has done anything with these since they were invented’,” he says.
Gloves are one of the most commonly used products in healthcare, so the scope for this product is vast.
The idea of microbe-killing gloves might sound simple, but the scientific formula that underpins it isn’t as easy to wrap your head around. As such, Gros works with academics, such as Richard James and Paul Wight, to develop the technology.
“It takes a brave person to try and innovate in a scientific environment that you are not experienced in,” he says, admitting that he felt like an imposter in the early days. “I would ask myself: why should I be managing PhDs, academics, and people who are intellectually superior to me?”
But bringing commercial knowledge to the table is invaluable – and the scarcity of this skill when applied to science is a big reason biotech ideas fail.
“While I can’t take any credit for the chemistry, I am very clear about my role as chief executive; I’m funding the project and driving it forward.”
Of course, anyone can patent an idea, but whether you can make that patent a commercial success is another thing entirely. And, in many ways, you can see how Gros’s skill as a businessman has brought this project to life. And yet, everything he says comes with a pinch of humility.
“As with any business, you’re only as good as the people around you, and so for me it’s about assembling teams to do incredible things. I’m really privileged to work with people who have a real thirst for passing on information, and I think it’s an art to help a lay person like me understand very complex scientific algorithms and equations,” Gros says, stressing how important it is that he understands the intricate detail of his product.
There is a lot to be said for applying commercial logic to scientific development, and being able to look at the same scenario through a business lens means Gros is able to see things from a different perspective to the rest of his team, prioritising the commercial benefits that the technology might need.
“I’ve met a lot of scientists and their motivation is not usually money. For them, it’s often about being involved in something worthwhile – they want the credibility of their work to reflect their effort. For me, it’s about taking complicated things and seeing how they can fit into applications. I always want a simple answer.”
But the learning curve is steep, and fraught with difficulty, as Gros sought to ensure his product not only worked, but was safe and cheap – three parameters that are difficult to work with collectively.
And cost is crucial if these gloves are to be purchased and adopted by health authorities. Gros’s background means he’s a dab-hand when it comes to understanding the remits of the price-driven NHS.
“We had to develop something that was very low-cost, because clinical medical authorities weren’t going to pay more money for this,” he says. “You can tell people how much money you are going to save them through reducing HAIs, but they’re not interested in that.”
Producing the gloves on a mass scale at a such a low cost was a huge stumbling block for Gros, who says he reached a point where he was hanging on a thread financially and eating into his own personal wealth as he struggled to find a manufacturing company that shared the same innovative vision.
But meeting Kuan Kam Hon, the chairman of Malaysian manufacturing giant Hartalega, was the defining moment, Gros says. Hartalega is the biggest glove manufacturer by market cap in the world, and has some of the fastest production lines, which help to produce 300bn units a year.
But that’s not the end of the line. Gros says the molecule his team has created is not just confined to gloves, and could be used in other medical applications.
“We’ve got a process patent for the gloves, but we’ve also got a new molecule patent because we have synthesised a new molecule, which could be applied to other medical devices.”
I mention how remarkable it is that Gros still has full ownership of his company, particularly given that most entrepreneurs seek funding from private investors in the early stages.
“I saw the downside of having partners,” he says. “Not everyone follows the same school of thought; I don’t like lots of bureaucracy. I’m often working on an instinct, and commercial people don’t often work like that – they want more substance to the argument.
“When it’s other people’s money, you have a sense of responsibility – you can be swayed and influenced by what they want, but I wanted to do things on my terms.”
Clearly, this product is designed to stop people from contracting some dangerous infections, but we can’t forget how this could also reduce the financial burden on the NHS.
With a health service at breaking point and the government struggling to find further funds for it, it really is a case of do or die when it comes to building the tech that could save our poorly NHS – and ultimately save lives in the process.