Inventions that improve our lives
The first prize in this year's "Empa Innovation Award" goes to a health technology that is retiring surgical sutures: Nanoglue is a novel tissue adhesive technology that promises faster and safer wound healing. It was developed by researchers at Empa's "Particles-Biology Interactions" Laboratory in St. Gallen in collaboration with the Nanoparticle Systems Engineering Lab at ETH Zurich. Their approach differs radically from existing solutions in that it uses the wound-healing properties of inorganic hybrid materials.
In contrast to previous wound adhesives, which consist mainly of the body's own protein fibrin, the technology is based on a combination of inorganic nanoparticles. Depending on the formulation, the adhesive particles bind particularly well to bone or soft tissue. Further wound healing effects, such as accelerated blood coagulation, are promising for the treatment of external and internal wounds.
The wound adhesive is based on cost-effective materials that can be produced on a large scale and adheres strongly to the tissue, as experiments with prototypes have shown. Nanoglue can thus ensure faster and safer wound healing, benefiting patients, hospitals and the healthcare system. Until now, poorly healing wounds have been a great burden for those affected and an increasing cost factor for the healthcare system.
Empa researcher and ETH Pioneer Fellow Tino Matter, together with Sebastian Loy (University St. Gallen) and his spin-off company anavo (not yet founded), is trying to bring this unique technology to the market. anavo has already made it to the finals at the Swiss Innovation Forum and at Venture Kick, the largest start-up support program in Switzerland. Further funding has also been secured from Startfeld and Innosuisse. "Intensive research has been conducted in nanotechnology for decades. Now the time is mature to bring a nanomedical innovation to the market", says Matter.
Transparent Corona Mask
The Hello-Mask project, in which researchers from Empa and EPFL developed a transparent protective mask, also received an award. The Hello-Mask is a prime example of an innovation that can solve the problems of tomorrow: As early as 2018, the team started work with the aim of producing transparent surgical masks, which, while keeping germs at bay, do not obscure the lip movement and facial expressions of the wearer. While face masks are now used millions of times in everyday life due to the corona pandemic, the need for transparent masks grew simultaneously in various population groups such as healthcare and school personnel. Deaf associations and nursing homes also show a keen interest in such masks.
At the same time, the Empa and EPFL start-up company "HMCare", founded in 2020, is working with great enthusiasm on the market launch of the Hello Mask. The transparent surgical mask should be available by mid 2021. "The completely transparent mask was developed primarily with the aim of improving the relationship between nursing staff and patients," said Empa researcher Joshua Avossa from the "Biomimetic Membranes and Textiles" lab in St. Gallen, who accepted the award. Two years of joint research at Empa and EPFL were necessary to reconcile transparency, durability and porosity in particular. The result is a membrane made of a polymer specially developed for this application. "We can produce extremely fine membranes with a pore size of about 100 nanometers by means of so-called electrospinning," says the researcher. The arrangement of the fibers creates tiny spaces that allow air to pass through but hold back viruses and bacteria.
Sustainable energy systems
Also among the winners is "Urban Sympheny", a software platform for planning sustainable energy systems. The Empa spin-off, founded in 2020, focuses on software-based support for the planning of sustainable energy systems for neighborhoods, districts and municipalities. The goal is to help energy system planners to quickly, comprehensively and effectively navigate through the range of available technological options and to identify a set of optimal design solutions tailored to the specific constraints and objectives of a given site and customer. "We offer a scalable SaaS (Software as a Service) platform, which enhances and accelerates our customer's existing workflows, reducing project costs and empowering planners to achieve ambitious energy performance objectives ", says Sympheny CEO Andrew Bollinger. The innovative software platform was developed at Empa's Urban Energy Systems lab within the context of the Swiss Competence Center for Energy Research (SCCER Future Energy Efficient Buildings & Districts). Last year, Urban Sympheny was awarded CHF 50'000 in the first two rounds of Venture Kick.
The "Empa Innovation Award"
Every two years since 2006, Empa has presented the "Empa Innovation Award" to honor outstanding innovation and technology transfer projects. The prize, endowed with CHF 5'000, honors an individual, a group or a department for excellent innovation or successful technology transfer to the private sector. In addition, two recognition prizes of CHF 2'000 each are awarded. Empa thus honors the efforts of its researchers to further strengthen the bridge between science and industry through applied, market-oriented research. Today, spin-offs or industrial partners market the innovation and technology transfer projects of the previous winners.