If you’re not a chemist, chances are you probably haven’t heard of zeolites—but they play an important role in our lives. These mineral structures have long been used in gasoline production, gas purification processes and laundry detergents. They’re stable and resistive to most environmental conditions. They have very high melting points, don’t burn, don’t dissolve in water or under high pressures. Plus, they’re made of inorganic material, so they’re not harmful on contact or to the environment. These characteristics led researchers at ZeoVation in Columbus, Ohio, to realize their game-changing potential in a consumer product like sunscreen.
“Zeolites have long been considered boring to most researchers,” joked Dr. Prabir Dutta, Professor in The Ohio State University’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry and co-founder of ZeoVation. “But their properties fascinate us. They have an open structure that allows them to trap other molecules inside them. Sunscreens on the market today may exhibit phototoxicity. The active ingredient, avobenzone, may not itself be toxic. But it breaks down in light easily, so manufacturers add a long list of questionable stabilizing compounds. We can trap the avobenzone in a zeolite and eliminate the need for these potentially harmful chemicals.”
ZeoVation’s innovative application also has the potential to boost the sunscreen’s durability and UV ray-fighting capabilities. Zeolites’ ability to remain intact against environmental factors like high temperatures and water make sunscreen a fitting application for the technology. This solution won’t break down in the hot sun or require reapplication after each swim. Also, zeolites naturally scatter light on contact, so when paired with the UV ray-absorbing properties of avobenzone, ZeoVation could enhance the efficacy of traditional sunblock.
The idea for this unique zeolite application came because of research conducted by Dr. Bo Wang, co-founder and inventor of ZeoVation’s core technology. Dr. Wang researched zeolites throughout his graduate and doctorate degrees at The Ohio State University, and under the supervision of Dr. Dutta, made discoveries that led to the formation of ZeoVation. The pair knew they were onto something big and began exploring the process of commercialization, a process Dr. Dutta has navigated successfully before. An asthma-detecting device he created was licensed by Spirosure in 2016.
To begin the process towards commercialization, ZeoVation participated in The Concept Academy at Rev1 Ventures, a central Ohio regional partner of Ohio Third Frontier. There, they were connected to their CEO, serial entrepreneur Steve Jones, and were able to refine their idea, explore its viability, and develop an early business model. Rev1 was also pivotal in assisting ZeoVation with grant proposals, which helped the company secure a grant from the Technology Validation and Start-up Fund. They’re utilizing these funds to scale up production and begin research on new zeolite applications.
The company of three has no vision of becoming a sunscreen manufacturer, taking on existing giants like Johnson & Johnson or P&G, whose brands are on the shelves of every supermarket and drugstore. They’re in talks with these companies to license their technology to them, an approach they feel will lead to environmentally-friendly, effective sunscreens quickly reaching the market. They credit the support of the state of Ohio and resources like Rev1 for their rapid growth.
“They’ve been phenomenal. We certainly would not be in the position we are today without the help of Rev1 or Ohio Third Frontier,” said Dr. Wang. “We knew that we had the potential to commercialize this technology, but they helped us make it a reality. I cannot stress enough the importance the support of these resources have had on our growth.”