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May 2020

The Chemistry of Disinfecting

With cleaning and sanitizing products flying off the shelves and handwashing jingles becoming ubiquitous, we’d like to consider the chemistry of micro-organism control.

There are many ways to effectively remove pathogens, including coronavirus, from surfaces.

You can find a full list of registered products that have been recommended by the EPA, including Force of Nature, for use against SARS-CoV-2 here.

Most of these products use one of three basic mechanisms to chemically control bacteria and viruses:

Membrane Disruption – chemicals that break apart the outer lining of microorganisms. Regular hand soap works this way and can be an effective way to harm the membranes of most microorganisms when used properly. The novel coronavirus responsible for COVID-19, is particularly susceptible to soap, which disrupts its lipid coating.

Crosslinking – chemicals that crosslink and impair microbial RNA/DNA and other cellular machinery. Crosslinking chemicals can damage any type of cell. In hospital operating rooms for example, crosslinker active ingredient glutaraldehyde is often the sterilant of choice because it can kill not only bacteria and viruses, but also spores and endospores, which may be resistant to other modes of chemical attack. This type of disinfectant is usually too dangerous for consumer use.

Oxidization – chemicals that either destroy or degrade cellular structures or interfere with cellular function through oxidative stress. These chemicals come in a wide range of potency and efficacy and include many of the traditional bleaching agents like chlorine and hydrogen peroxide. These powerful chemical oxidizers are effective against a wide range of viruses and bacteria, but they can also cause skin and/or respiratory tract irritation.

Disinfectants are only a small subset of the larger class of antimicrobial chemicals that are used in consumer products. Apart from disinfecting, antimicrobial chemistries serve essential functions including, odor control, and preserving food and formulated products. These functions are often provided by undesirable chemistries, including parabens, formaldehyde releasing chemicals, isothiazolinones, and quaternary ammonium compounds.

Over the last two years we came across thirty or so companies developing safer microbial control innovations with personal care, textile, and industrial applications. Each sector has unique sets of performance and cost criteria that require specific solutions. We have noticed some directions or trends in safer antimicrobial control innovation.

One pattern is looking for chemistries that occur in nature. After all plants, fungi, and other eukaryotes have been dealing with microorganisms for millions of years, before we showed up. This approach involves either using natural extracts directly, or artificially re-creating similar chemistries. An example in this category is Mother’s Choice that uses natural plant extracts to create effective preservative solutions for personal care products. Other examples include Nagardo, Chinovia (fungal compounds), Life Materials (mint based actives solution for textile fibers), and Aequor (antimicrobials inspired by sea creatures for industrial and medical applications). One note here is that not all naturally occurring chemistries are by default safe to humans and safety needs to be established for every solution.

It is also possible to take an ecosystem approach to controlling microbial populations and a handful of companies have started using beneficial microorganisms to control pathogenic ones. This trend is most developed in nutrition (probiotic supplements and therapies) but also making inroads in agriculture (Boost Biomes), in cleaning products (BioOrg, Aunt Fannies, and Counter Culture), and personal care (Mother Dirt, Persona Biome, Dermala, and Ellis Day).

Another approach to controlling microbial activity involves rethinking product design, for example by removing water from formulations. Companies such as Nohbo, Owa, and Lush are following this approach in personal care. Other companies are developing new coatings and packaging that incorporate design features or chemicals that inhibit bacterial growth. Companies working on antimicrobial surface properties include Cambridge Crops, Reactive Surfaces, Smart Plastic,Tidal Vision, and Sonovia.

As consumer awareness of microbial control grows we expect to see continued demand for new technologies that provide excellent performance in a safe and sustainable way. Among our investments that touch this space we count Force of Nature, which makes an EPA registered disinfectant system based on dilute hypochlorous acid, Nohbo, which makes water-free personal products that remove the need for preservatives and plastic packaging, and Mother’s Choice, that uses safe, natural plant extracts to create effective preservative solutions for personal care products.

New Investments: Nohbo and Mother’s Choice

We’re happy to announce recent investment in Nohbo, a company making personal care pods and soap slips that eliminate plastic packaging and chemical preservatives, and use bio-based ingredients. We also committed to an investment in Mother’s Choice, a company that has developed a proprietary natural extract based preservative formulation that eliminates the use of synthetic preservatives in personal care products and enables brands to differentiate on safety and sustainability. The financings will allow both Nohbo and Mother’s Choice to commercialize their safer personal care products and ingredients.


C16 Biosciences, a biotechnology firm that brews sustainable alternatives to palm oil, raised $20 Million.

Crop Enhancement, a developer nontoxic plant coating to improve crop yield, raised $8 million.

Kebotix, a technology platform company for new AI-discovered chemicals and materials, raised $11.4 million.

Knowde, a company building a digital marketplace for the chemicals industry, raised $14 million.

Lilac Solutions, a lithium mining technology company that improves yield and sustainability using ion-exchange, raised $20 million.

Molekule, producer of connected indoor air purifiers, raised $58 million.

MycoWorks, a developer of a leather alternative based on mycelium, raised $17 million.

Naza Beauty, a brand of hair care products designed for the needs of people of color, raised $1 million.

Nelumbo, a developer of safer surface coatings for industrial and apparel industries, raised $14 million.

Nohbo, a sustainable personal care company that makes single-use, water soluble products like shampoo and body wash pods, raised $3 million.

Starface, a skincare brand that makes hydrocolloid pimple patches, raised $2 million.

Vericool, maker of fiber-based packaging meant to replace plastic coolers, raised $19.1 million.


Stepan Company has acquired Logos Technologies LLC’s NatSurFact® business, a line of bio-surfactants derived from renewable sources.

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