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The Inventivity Pod
Using Sharkskin to Fight Bacterial Growth

One of nine children, Dr. Anthony (Tony) Brennan grew up in a small town in upstate New York. He invented a way to inhibit bacterial growth through plastic sheets that are comprised of millions of microscopic features arranged in a diamond pattern – much like shark skin. A voracious reader, Tony wanted to be an astronaut growing up, but had poor eyesight. His inspiration for Sharklet Technologies was the US Navy, which in 1999 asked him to figure out a way to keep barnacles from growing on its ships. *This episode was originally released on September 25, 2018.*




Intro: 0:01
Inventors and their inventions. Welcome to Radio Cade, a podcast from the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention in Gainesville, Florida. The museum is named after James Robert Cade, who invented Gatorade in 1965. My name is Richard Miles.

Richard Miles: 0:20
We’ll introduce you to inventors and the things that motivate them. We’ll learn about their personal stories, how their inventions work, and how their ideas get from the laboratory to the marketplace.

Richard Miles: 0:41
This morning I have as my guest, Tony Brennan, who is the founder of Sharklet Technologies, which as the name implies, has something to do with sharks. So he’s a good guest. Welcome Tony.

Tony Brennan: 0:51
Thank you. It’s my pleasure to be here today.

Richard Miles: 0:54
So before we talk about Sharklet, I always like to start asking the guest a little bit about their background. So if you could share with us where were you born, what were you like as a kid? What was your family like? How did you end up pre-academic days, so to speak.

Tony Brennan: 1:10
So it’s always interesting to ask a Brennan a question like that because I’m one of nine. My father was one of ten. So there’s a lot of us and we have a lot to tell, but uh, just to keep it reasonably short…

Richard Miles: 1:23
Maybe I should ask for some ID to make sure you’re really the Tony Brennan I had mind right?

Tony Brennan: 1:27
Oh, there’s no doubt about it. Anybody listening will recognize it right away. So I’m one of nine. I was the sixth child. I was born in Saranac Lake, New York, which is famous for being the first town formed in the adirondack mountains. It’s really the home for the Winter Olympics. The mountain lake placid is just outside of Saranac Lake. Whiteface is actually closer to Saranac where the Olympics were held twice. Both times they had to haul snow in. The town I grew up in was a small hamlet, natural bridge, New York, and it’s about 30 miles north east of Watertown, New York, which is 60 miles north of Syracuse, New York, which is right in the middle of the state. So we’re very close to Canada and it was a great place to grow up because it was a town of 600. We had 11 people and so we were predominant in the town and we could do whatever we wanted and so it gave an early opportunity for me to explore.

Richard Miles: 2:29
So the early entrepreneurial setting here, so…

Tony Brennan: 2:32
Very early.

Richard Miles: 2:33
And Tony, I do believe you are the first guest on the show that has a connection to Napoleon Bonaparte. Maybe you could explain that.

Tony Brennan: 2:40
Yeah, that is such a fascinating story. We always heard this story that was given. There’s natural bridge caverns in natural bridge in New York and they always gave a tour. It’s a natural bridge formed by the Indian river that goes under through the limestone. So they actually give boat tours and they always told this story about French jewels that were buried there somewhere in the caverns. And we always thought it was just a story. So lately historians have confirmed that Joseph Bonaparte who was king of Spain actually bought land in natural bridge and built a house there. And there was a lake very close to us that’s called Lake Bonaparte. And so the connection is real. The house burned in 1932, I think it was. It was a wooden house and it was actually built to be a summer home for the king, but it also was one of the sites that Napoleon was supposed to be exiled to.

Richard Miles: 3:42

Tony Brennan: 3:43
Yes. So we’re very close to Canada and northern New York and that area was largely French populated and luray was a cousin of Bonaparte, owned all the land in that area are currently. Our Fort Drum is on the lorain state and the luray mansion is a guest house on the camp, so it’s still there. It’s a couple hundred years old.

Richard Miles: 4:05
Did Joseph Bonaparte ever visit that house?

Tony Brennan: 4:07
Joseph Bonaparte visited quite often they said.

Richard Miles: 4:11
Wow, okay. So if Napoleon had visited history might have turned out a little bit differently. Um, and so as a kid you were a big reader, read quite a bit. What were your favorite types of books? Are your favorite books when you were…

Tony Brennan: 4:28
Well as, as one of nine, I think it’s interesting to think back about what I thought was going on and it was always from my perspective, looking outward and as my other siblings tell me my favorite books were the Compton Encyclopedias that my father got when I was in fourth grade, I think. And uh, I enjoyed reading that cover to cover front to back. But my favorite book was the story autobiography by Benjamin Franklin. He was a fascinating guy. Fascinating man.

Richard Miles: 5:00
You were also interested in things like space travel and sputnik and so on.

Tony Brennan: 5:04
I wanted to be an astronaut from day one. I used to marvel at the moon walking along and for some reason as a child, I remember we got very large moons and it was because we were so far north, we actually did and you just could see so much detail and I always thought that would be the best thing to travel to the moon, but never had good enough eye sight to become a pilot and you had to be a pilot back then to be an astronaut. So that didn’t work out.

Richard Miles: 5:33
So instead of the moon and astronauts, instead you’re dealing with sharks. So somewhere your career took a left or a right turn. Tell us about Sharklet technology. What is it? Why is it called Sharklet? How does it work? And who’s using it?

Tony Brennan: 5:48
First of all, the reason for the sharks is that the US navy funded my research back in 1999, I think was when the white paper was submitted. And they funded my research at the very beginning when I just had this crazy idea that if I could make a surface that was unstable, and at the time I was thinking of quicksand. So if I made something that was so soft that organisms couldn’t settle on, it might have a chance. And the navy actually funded me. I don’t… to this day, I can’t believe they did it, but if they hadn’t, this wouldn’t have happened.

Richard Miles: 6:26
That and like $600 toilet seats. Right? So…

Tony Brennan: 6:30
I give him credit. Let’s not go down that path because I understand all the difficulties of specifying materials to fit on an aircraft carrier or something. Right? So sharklet technologies came about because I was doing research to stop organisms from landing on the side of the ship.

Richard Miles: 6:47
And just to clarify, you are a material science professor or…

Tony Brennan: 6:51
Yes. I am a professor of material science and engineering. I started out with a chemistry degree because I was seriously thinking about becoming an MD, but at some point, I decided that wasn’t in my life to be an MD. I give those guys a lot of credit. I don’t have the proper traits. So I joke often that I have a PhD, not an MS because I have no patience and I think part of being an entrepreneur you can’t have a lot of patients.

Richard Miles: 7:19
So when the navy came to you with this request, presumably you knew what you were doing and that’s why the navy came to you and asked…

Tony Brennan: 7:26
Well yeah. So they had funded indirectly my research during my PhD and so the man who funded me knew me from there and so I guess he was taking a little gamble with me, but he felt I was qualified and so I’d worked in dental biomaterials, to begin with, and that’s all about organism sticking to composites that are used to repair teeth or bond to teeth, and that’s what started my thinking. So going on, I just was trying to keep barnacles off the side of the ship when I started looking at sharks.

Richard Miles: 7:59
And that’s a huge problem for the navy, right?

Tony Brennan: 8:01
That’s a massive problem for the world. Ninety percent of all of our goods are shipped over the oceans and every ship moving from the US to Asia, from Asia to Antarctica to Australia, all around the world. Every shIp goes into a port and sits there and the barnacles of that port are landing or attaching to the ship. The ship leaves carries those barnacles to another port and thus we get what’s called an invasive species. And a good example is the zebra mollusk. Think everybody’s heard of that. The zebra mollusk has been populated from a ship into the great lakes and up where I grew up. So that’s the number one problem. Number two is, of course the economic, and right now we know green gas. So ships carrying all that weight, extra weight and drag on their increases the amount of cost of fuel plus for the navy, it increased the cost of cleaning them and the cost are estimated somewhere around a half a billion dollars a year extra.

Richard Miles: 9:05
So they were tryIng to find a, some sort of surface that mollusks or other sea creatures wouldn’t attach to and you came up with an idea and apparently your first try didn’t go so well.

Tony Brennan: 9:20
That’s an understatement. So I started out looking at what had been done in this area as far as trying to prevent water from wetting, a surface and organisms. And they tried Teflon early on. It was a miserable failure. They loved it because Teflon is hard. So I was going for the soft surface and um, I decided to be an engineer about it. So I took everything that they’d done with sandpaper and rough surfaces like that. And I said, let’s do it systematically and I started out. The first samples I put in the ocean, especially in Hawaii, were a terrible, terrible failure. And that’s how I got thinking about sharks.

Richard Miles: 10:05
So you were talking earlier about a particular moment in which you had, I guess some observers from the navy watching you or sort of testing out and tell us a little bit about that experience. It sounds a little bit dramatic.

Tony Brennan: 10:18
Again, I need to emphasize what the navy is trying to do. They’re trying to find a coating that will be on the side of their ship for 10 to 12 years and they don’t want it releasing anything to the environment. They don’t want to killing anything. They just want it to be neutral in the environment. So it’s very difficult. But we had a whole group of people because there was an international conference in Hawaii. We decided to piggyback the navy meeting at the same time so we had all the people from the navy, had other researchers that were there, probably 10 or 12 people. We’re on a raft next to a dock where aIrcraft carriers doc, I mean it’s three or four ladders down from the top of that to the water level. It’s just so big. It’s amazing. And we were down there pulling out my panels. They looked horrible and some guy from one of the labs I won’t say where, and he made a wise crack about jesus too bad in the navy’s not paying you to get things to stick because you did a good job here. So that started my brain going…

Richard Miles: 11:20
Right. Probably still wake up dreaming about that.

Tony Brennan: 11:24
I still laugh about it because It got me mad and I was looking off because I just was trying to keep myself cool. And so I was looking and a nuclear sub was leaving and seemed like it was next to me, but it was a long ways away and I could see the green algae is stuck on the hall and I was really upset. I said we’re supposed to be stopping that and we’re not doing a very good job.

Richard Miles: 11:47
So the sub is pulling out. It’s got algae and then you figured out something about that that led to sharks?

Tony Brennan: 11:53
I just said it looked like a big whale and then I said, come to think of it whales are fouled and they are. They’ve got barnacles all over them, they got sponge everything. And then I started going down through all the animals in the ocean and everybody had a reason why thIs one wouldn’t work and why they were clean or dirty or whatever. Manatees, turtles, even blue muscles and red muscles. The blue mussels are clean. The red muscles foul and they’re cousins but they have striations on their back which was very similar to the striations I was testing but a different size. So as I kept going, I brought up sharks and everybody goes, no, they’re fast moving. And I said, not the little guys you get to pet in an aquarium. And I said, what’s different? And a friend of mine offered to catch one for me. He said he catches him all the time and his research and releases them. So that started it.

Richard Miles: 12:44
So eventually this led you to the shark. You’ve figured out there’s something about the shark skin that repelled these sorts of organisms. And what next did you go back to the navy and go, “I’ve solved your problem?”

Tony Brennan: 12:57
No, but interestingly, the University of Florida is the world repository for everything about sharks. So we have every kind of sharkskin you can imagine. There were fine, even prehistoric. We have bones, teeth, well it’s not bones it’s cartilage, their skeletal structure. We have everything. And so when I came back and started looking, I looked at the sharks and lo and behold, interestingly there’s scales, called denticles, teeth like structures. So I felt like I was back home in the dental field and looking at it, I thought it was very close to one of my models that I drafted up for figuring out how to create roughness. So I hired a young kid to come into my lab and try to draw it on a computer aided design system and uh, he wasn’t successful and I got rid of him. He’s now my son in law and father of my grandchildren. I didn’t know at the time, but he’s one of the best engineers. I’ve ever known, but he was right. I couldn’t do what I initially wanted to do, but I put another student on it who ended up being my phd student and we just flattened it out and when we did that, we ended up with the sharklet design and the first time we tested it against that green algae that was on the submarine it had an 85 percent inhibition, So 85 percent of the cells that usually get on the surface weren’t there, and that’s the first ever anybody had ever been able to inhibit those cells.

Richard Miles: 14:24
So, Tony, I remember you telling me this story a few years ago and I thought, okay great, you must have made a lot of money. Go back to the navy and tell them you’ve got this great technology that keeps their ships and subs clean and you looked at me patiently and explained to me the other applications of the technology that actually could be more exciting. So let’s fast forward to sharklet technologies. Who are your main customers? And, I guess what is the most exciting application of the technology that you think of?

Tony Brennan: 14:51
Well, let me just finish off one little case. The reason I can’t use it on the side of a ship right now is because the green spores are so small and the barnacles separately are so large and there is a size dependence of their ability to respond to the sharklet so we literally have to work more on the chemistry and that’s what we’re doing now in our lab. But sharklet technologies was because of that test in Hawaii. There’s a tube born there that needs bacteria and every time I sent it to the University of Hawaii to be tested, they said, oh, it’s not working. We got this problem, this problem, this problem. We found out by accident really that there were no bacteria on the sharklet. And that’s where sharklet technologies comes from. So we are excited now about the fact that we have a urinary catheter that has been tested in a very small number of people in europe and it showed that it did keep the bacteria off the urinary catheter, which is the biggest problem we have in hospital acquired infections. It’s terrible. And the patients said it was much more comfortable than a conventional one, which it is. Has lower friction so it goes in and out easier. So it’s more comfortable that way. The doctors and nurses loved it and it did reduce the bacteria. And it’s interesting. It reduced the bacteria and the patient just like in the lab.

Richard Miles: 16:15
So that’s fascinating. So you set out to solve a problem for the US navy on big ships and you end up with catheters eventually that sound like they’re easier, safer, more resistant to bacteria, which is a massive problem as you said.

Tony Brennan: 16:30
It is. It is a huge problem. We also have work in developing an endotracheal tube and some of the more interesting things that most people will see is we’re working on cloth for chairs and public places and we’ve been able to show a significant reduction in bacteria transfer from one person to the next via that see. A lot of people worried about that going into trains and buses and airplanes. So we’re producing cloth with the sharklet pattern. But probably the most exciting one for me is going to be the fact that my initial invention was bioadhesion, not inhibiting. So bioadhesion lets me talk about inhibition and enhancement. That means I can stop cells from going on or I can encourage them to land on the surface.

Richard Miles: 17:21
Got it. Okay. Tell us, I guess a little bit about sharklet itself. We find it’s a common story. Researchers decide to commercialize their technology. They form a company and then they find it’s not like the academic world, that the entrepreneurial / business world is substantially different. Tell us about some of the challenges of getting the company going and tell us about a good week or a bad week. What were some of the best successes you’ve had and then what were some the surprises or failures or setbacks that you’ve had, if any?

Tony Brennan: 17:52
So I’m unusual maybe because I did ten years of industrial work in the biomedical field before I got my phd.

Richard Miles: 18:01
Okay. So you knew a little bit about this beforehand.

Tony Brennan: 18:04
I knew a lot about how to run a business and I also… this is my fourth business that I’ve started. Some of them were young as a child in natural bridge, but I’ve had a lot of businesses.

Richard Miles: 18:15
Which is somewhat unusual I have to say for some in the academic field to have had that business experience prior.

Tony Brennan: 18:22
It is, but I think it’s a benefit for my students to be able to give them real life examples and as an example, coming back to your question, the first biggest concern that we had was being able to manufacture sharklet. So we have been pushing technology and manufacturing to the point where we now have to have new inventions and we just had one issued last monday of this week actually. So I got another invention on how to manufacture it. That’s probably been our biggest challenge… effectively manufacturing in a cost effective manner.

Richard Miles: 18:58
I see. So it’s not enough to develop the technology and the principal in the lab. You’ve got to really be able to make this so.

Tony Brennan: 19:03
You do.

Richard Miles: 19:04
Industrial clients can demand it and order.

Tony Brennan: 19:07
Right. So some of the successes are going to be, first of all, the urinary catheter. That, to me, is a huge success, but it’s a very slow process to get it through the FDA and everything and so that’s something I knew about, but it’s still discouraging the time it takes to get it through the system. The other things that happen are money. Money is always a problem when you’re starting a company. So we started out with three people committing for a million dollars. Our next money was $500,000 and that’s over about a year and a half period. Well that sounds like a lot of money until you start putting people in materials and buildings together. That money goes fast. So we were lucky. We had hired great people to work on writing grants to the federal government and we got funded by the NIH, National Institute of Health, small business innovation research program, which is a phenomenal program started by Reagan. For those of you who may be listening, that was a very insightful program that they created and it gave us a lot of money to create these products and develop them. And we have been a success story for NIH because our products are actually going to market.

Richard Miles: 20:19
I’m sure Tony, given your background, you probably get asked a lot for advice, career advice and so on. When you have, not necessarily researchers, but probably researchers or people who have developed a good idea, said that the idea is sound and they want to try to get that idea into the marketplace. So maybe they’re thinking of starting a company or trying to attract investment. What sort of words of wisdom do you or would you give to somebody like that starting out, say on there under journey.

Tony Brennan: 20:46
Be committed. Don’t take no for an answer, but be intelligent enough to listen and listening to people who understand markets. That’s probably the biggest issue. You’ve got to have an existing market. Don’t create a market. It’s too big of a push and we still struggle with that somewhat in terms of trying to convince people or get them to understand what it means to inhibit bacteria on a car seat as an example. Um, doctors and hospItals see it right away. They understand it’s not a problem, but commitment, listening and push, push through.

Richard Miles: 21:22
Push through. It’s a great way to end the program. Thanks very much, Tony, for being with us and look forward to seeing you continue to succeed.

Tony Brennan: 21:29
Thank you very much. I appreciate the invitation.

Outro: 21:37
Radio Cade would like to thank the following people for their help and support. Liz Gist of the Cade Museum for coordinating Inventor Interviews. Bob McPeak of heartwood soundstage and downtown Gainesville, Florida for recording, editing, and production of the podcasts and music theme. Tracy Columns for the composition and performance of the Radio Cade theme song featuring violinist Jacob Lawson. And special thanks to the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention located in Gainesville, Florida.

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