You probably know someone—€”perhaps even yourself—€”who has faced a diagnosis of malignant skin cancer. Since 1973, rates have nearly doubled for some parts of the population and have risen for everyone. Death rates from these diseases have increased steadily over the same period. In our sun-drenched culture, the need for good suncare products is greater than ever.
Today, thanks to quantum-dot nanotechnology developed at Los Alamos National Laboratory, New Mexico-based Surya Suncare Inc. stands poised to solve the problem of fatal, sun-caused skin disease for the first time and tap into an enormous global market for advanced skincare products.
The problem is this: Invisible ultraviolet radiation from the sun comes in several "flavors." Science once thought that shorter-wavelength UVB rays were the source of most problems, and the Sun Protection Factor (SPF) was introduced in the early 1970s to measure UVB protection. Today, however, research has revealed that UVB primarily causes sunburn and is only secondarily implicated in skin cancers. In fact, longer-wavelength UVA rays penetrate more deeply into the skin's layers and contribute much more significantly to such things as deadly malignant melanoma and "photoaging"—€”wrinkling and other skin damage. The SPF system does not measure UVA protection.
A boom in suncare products demonstrates consumer interest in the issue, but existing sunscreen products provide only partial protection against UVA rays, so consumers may be lulled into a false sense of security because they do not burn and so believe they are fully protected. The most successful current products use chemical filters that break down over time. No current product, however, provides stable 100 percent protection.
Enter a team of four New Mexicans led by Steve Renfro, Surya president and a senior LANL manager with six patents and a background in private-sector manufacturing and chemical commercialization. Renfro and colleagues Miles Nelson, Klaus Mueller and Will Reichard met in the Executive MBA program at the University of New Mexico's Anderson School of Management. It was and is a diverse team, bringing together a Stanford-educated physician and head of a large Northern New Mexico medical practice (Nelson), a successful entrepreneur and co-founder of a recently acquired technology startup (Mueller), and a career communications and fundraising professional and principal in a public relations and marketing firm (Reichard).
In 2008, as part of a class assignment, the team researched and cowrote a business plan for a Los Alamos technology in which Renfro had long been interested.
"Quantum dots, of course, are one of the hottest technologies out there," Renfro said. "The chance to apply this intellectual property to real products was hugely interesting to us. It doesn't hurt that the market for suncare in the U.S. alone is over $1 billion a year and that anti-aging products have proven to be some of the most robust during the downturn. And as someone who has had to have several pre-cancerous skin growths removed, it's of personal interest to me."
That interest (and a lot of hard work) paid off for the team. After receiving the Technology Ventures Corporation-Lockheed Martin prize in the 2008 UNM Technology Business Plan Competition, the team incorporated the company in New Mexico and began refining the plan based on feedback received at the event. This year, Surya became one of 15 teams invited from 52 applicants to take part in the TVC Equity Capital Symposium in May, where the company was well received.
The group's plan includes using quantum dots—€”minute, nano-scale combinations from specific parts of the periodic table that are being used in a wide range of fields, from applications in solar cells to uses as markers for cancer drugs—€”and suspending them in a high-quality cosmetic base in which they will completely shield the skin from UV radiation. The dots can be "tuned" precisely to block any desired wavelength and, unlike filters, quantum dots are solid state—€”meaning that they don't break down. They also absorb UV rays and re-emit the energy in a different part of the spectrum while letting harmless visible light pass through. Surya's quantum dot product will be the first ever to claim 100 percent UV protection in a stable, optically transparent formula. The group has a detailed business plan projecting nearly $30 million of annual revenue within five years.
Active in nanoparticle and quantum dot research for well over a decade, Los Alamos scientists originally used quantum dots as a tool for exploring the physics and photophysics of materials. Application development followed as researchers explored uses for quantum dots ranging from lasers and LEDs to photovoltaic devices and sunscreens. As the utility of these materials became better understood Los Alamos built a capability that included ultrafast spectroscopy, particle synthesis and theoretical materials development.
The intellectual property Los Alamos developed several years ago covers all applications of quantum dots for the purpose of blocking UV light, raising the prospect of future products in such areas as clear coatings and fabric technology. Renfro credits the ability to tap into that expertise to the staff at the laboratory.
"Our success would not have been possible without the exceptional assistance of Los Alamos' technology transfer department," Renfro said. "They have worked hard and with a particular understanding of our needs in bringing a technology of this type into the commercial realm." Lab staff, particularly Michael Erickson and Laura Barber, helped the startup company craft an exclusive license option to the patent.
"Their advice has been so helpful that we've come to think of them as another partner, another member of the team," Renfro said. "They clearly want New Mexico technology to succeed, and they know how to make it happen. This is a model for how it ought to work."
Surya—€”the name refers to the chief Hindu solar deity and is meant to convey appreciation and respect for light—€”has already begun to take off. Its initial plans include working on branding efforts while the necessary testing is done for federal approval of a new suncare product. Surya is currently selling a branding product using state-of-the-art, currently approved materials through a number of spa partners in northern New Mexico, and it plans to continue to manufacture its product locally. The group is made up of "committed New Mexicans," according to Renfro. Several of the firm's founders are making the transition to working full-time with Surya as funding is secured.
A number of funding discussions are ongoing to power operations and support testing for approval, and the group's president is optimistic.
"We've got everything we need," Renfro said. "A terrific team, a terrific product and a terrific community. You couldn't ask for a richer environment than New Mexico."
Surya has big plans, Renfro said. "There is currently no standard—€”no reference product—€”for testing UVA protection. We're going to be the standard against which all others will be measured."
Will Reichard is a cofounding member of the Surya management team.