Cancer fears over hexavalent chromate, the commonly used preventative and the chemical at the centre of Hollywood pollution epic Erin Brockovich, have now led to it being banned in Europe and the greatest opportunity yet for Hexigone’s unique, chrome-free replacement. The Swansea University spin-out’s Intelli-ion technology, developed by founder and chief executive Dr Patrick Dodds, protects by creating tiny reservoirs of chemically intelligent pigment additives within coatings such as paint. Sensing environmental conditions on the spot, these respond by triggering the release of their inhibitor, delivering ‘on demand’ protection or self-healing of the material.
The business’s latest backing has come from The Development Bank of Wales (DBW), government innovation agency Innovate UK and angel investor Phil Buck, all persuaded by Hexigone’s “strong science” and commercial potential.
“Independent research shows our technology is up to 10 times more effective than other alternatives, lasts longer and extends the lifespan of products because it reduces maintenance and waste,” says Dodds for whom the contamination scandal featured in Erin Brockovich had a profound effect.
Certain that the use of hexavalent would become increasingly restricted, he made his crucial discovery while working on his doctorate and deciding to move his research away from industry standards and explore smart release vehicles.
“Now the ban has arrived and industry has to work out how it deals with the billions of parts affected. For us it’s a tail wind,” he explains. “We are offering a higher performing product that can easily be added and with prices that match the market and a product that can be easily added.
“It’s adaptable too so it fits existing production without changes.”
Hexigone’s £150,000 turnover is expected shoot up into the millions over the next three years, and skilled jobs for more than 30 created in south Wales as expansion develops.
Customers are coatings manufacturers and selected steel producers and Hexigone is already working with 20 international partners. The plan is to have the UK as the main operating base with shipping of the pigment to smaller sites of demand.
Now a recent visit to Japan could see Hexigone supplying customers there come 2022.
Alexander Leigh, DBW’s technology ventures investment executive commented: “This makes it a perfect fit for the Wales Technology Seed Fund which supports innovative university spin-out companies and helps them bring their products to market, creating high value jobs and wealth in Wales.”
Tim Sawyer, Innovate UK chief investment officer added: “We are very pleased that Hexigone is one of the first companies to receive an innovation loan from Innovate UK. Significant challenges can represent great opportunities, as shown by Hexigone’s exciting new approach to inhibiting corrosion.”
Dodds, a member of the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Enterprise Hub which brings together new businesses with the most promise, says its training was critical in helping him understand how to adapt the business to maximise its potential.
“When our process first worked in the lab, it was amazing but difficult to get people to believe what we had done. We kept testing again and again to be sure,” he recalls.
“But looking back it could so nearly have just stayed as a good academic idea on paper without the support and this latest investment.
“The business side has been a big learning curve. Now our product has the qualifications to suit each manufacturer and technology is adaptable so there will be other industries to target in future. Our four years of struggle have been worth it.”