Editor’s note: Jim Shamp is senior editor at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center.

RALEIGH, N.C. – It’s been only four years since Agile Sciences spun out of North Carolina State University, but the young Raleigh biotech company is developing an international reputation as an up-and-coming scum-buster.

The beauty of Agile’s business lies in the proprietary way it uses sponges to mop up nasty bacteria. Actually, it uses a chemical from a sea sponge to break up bacterial clumps called biofilms.

Probably the most well-known example of a biofilm is dental plaque – a build-up of bacteria in a form so resilient that it requires periodic scraping in a dentist’s office to get rid of it.

That’s one of the big problems with biofilms – they’re extremely hard to get rid of. And they form in all kinds of places. They resist traditional antibiotics, so they’re dangerous when they invade humans, animals and plants. They even create millions of dollars in maintenance costs every year to get rid of their build-up on underwater surfaces, such as ship hulls and even some industrial filter membranes.

By bagging this scum, Agile seems to be onto something.

One of the latest additions to Agile’s growing pile of cash and kudos is a $75,000 Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) bridge loan from the North Carolina Biotechnology Center.

The loan is a “bridge” between a prestigious $150,000 Phase I SBIR grant from the National Science Foundation in 2009, and the anticipated next SBIR grant payment. It helps Agile continue to grow the commercial potential for its unique product portfolio’s applications in medical, agricultural and industrial markets – and to help draw even more investment to the company.

Targeting “bio-fouling”

With funding from the bridge loan, Agile Sciences is developing ways to battle a $2 billion-a-year industrial problem called bio-fouling, a term applied to the clogging of industrial filtration membranes by biofilms. By incorporating Agile’s proprietary molecular dispersant into the membrane fibers, Agile’s technology can keep bacteria from forming into the slimy film colonies.

“These bacteria are sort of like people,” said Agile Sciences’ co-founder, John Cavanagh, Ph.D. “When they communicate well, they find there’s safety in numbers. They join together and form these protective clumps. But we break down their communication channels with our technology, so they can’t sense each other or indeed the outside world, and they only worry about defending themselves rather than the whole group. That makes them weak and vulnerable.”

The Biotech Center has funded Agile in several ways, because the state-supported non-profit economic development organization believes Agile is poised to grow – and to provide good jobs in the process.

The relationship started when N.C. State chemist Christian Melander, Ph.D., biochemist Cavanagh and Plant Pathologist David Ritchie received a $250,000 Multidisciplinary Research Grant (MRG) in 2008 to hire lab support to help them validate that the simplified derivatives of the chemical produced by the sea sponge could be used to help treat bacterial infections in plants.

Melander then received a $100,000 Collaborative Funding Grant from the Biotech Center in 2009 to propel the technology to market by developing approaches to synthesize the molecules on large scale. The business partners also secured several Biotechnology Center loans.

“Funding from the North Carolina Biotechnology Center was instrumental in launching Agile Sciences and translating the technology from the academic setting to a commercial entity,” said Melander. “With support from the Center we have grown to a company of seven full-time employees and recently moved into a new lab space in the Keystone Science Center on Centennial Campus.”

He said Agile also benefits from the leadership of Keith Stoneback, CEO since 2008. Stoneback has significant experience in infection control and decontamination, which will be leveraged as the company pursues its largest market opportunity, antibiotic enhancement.

In 2010 Agile landed a major investment from Indiana agricultural company SePRO, to leverage Agile’s biofilm dispersion technology for use in the turf & ornamental and aquatic segments of the agro-chemical markets.

Interest in applications of Agile’s technology continues to grow. Earlier this year the company received a $75,000 grant from the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation to support the testing of its biofilm-busting material in people with the debilitating lung disease.

And earlier this month Agile was awarded a $300,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health to work with the Center for Biofilm Engineering at Montana State University to evaluate Agile’s anti-biofilm treatment for chronic wounds.

Eva Garland, Ph.D., director of operations, has been with Agile for four years and currently serves as principal investigator for Agile’s bridge-loan project.

“Lots of people are working on biofilms from a number of perspectives,” said Garland. “But nobody else has been able to identify small organic molecules that’ll actively disperse biofilms, such as the compounds discovered by Christian Melander and John Cavanagh.

“For me, there’s a lot of excitement in being with a start-up with a potential outcome so huge. This technology is particularly exciting because of the real and serious problems that can be solved once we successfully commercialize it.”

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