MicroSiO is one of five startups to win a collective $250,000 in grant funding from the nonprofit Durham-based NC IDEA Foundation. Since 2006, the foundation has awarded nearly $4.5 million to 109 startups around the state. The five companies were narrowed from 11 finalists, 26 semifinalists and 173 total applications for the Spring 2016 cycle. 

Anti-aging is an industry estimated to be worth a whopping $274 billion by 2020. 

It’s such an opportunity that founders of microSiO have found that the biggest cosmetic companies in the world eager for innovation that makes creams and oils more effective at diminishing lines and wrinkles and preserving the skin. 
Also appealing is the speed to which an advanced material company can get to market in the cosmetic industry—it’s not regulated by the Food & Drug Administration. That’s part of the reason NC IDEA picked this Durham startup as one of five grant winners in its spring 2016 cycle, says Thom Ruhepresident and CEO of NC IDEA and a judge.

“It’s a novel application of the technology,” he says. “And there’s a lot of money in age defying products in cosmetics.”
MicroSiO is commercializing a system of manufacturing silicone into tiny spheres—less than the width of a strand of human hair—that regulate the release of the ingredients inside them. 
It was developed over the last five years in a lab at Duke by Wyatt Shields who has a PhD in biomedical engineering from the university. He’s partnered up with two MBA candidates, Wes Day and Nick Kirby, both of whom entered Fuqua School of Business with the ambition to start a company. Day’s background is in banking and Kirby’s in chemical engineering at Syngenta. 

After scouring local universities for intellectual property last year, they eventually found Shields, saw the market opportunity of his process and entered Duke’s Program for Entrepreneurs to develop a path to market. 
They’ve since pivoted from a focus on cell sorting applications to targeting the personal care industry. The idea is that the silicone microspheres could be filled with creams or minerals that are unstable or volatile when exposed to light or other ingredients, with controlled release into a facial wash or clean to preserve them. One ingredient that will be an initial target is retinol, an anti-aging chemical that deteriorates over time and can cause irritation to the skin. 
The process can be compared to a liquid gel capsule which eventually dissolves and the medicine releases. Eventually, the company could target regulated industries like pharmaceuticals.
But for now, Day says the company is at the point where “two worlds are colliding:” product development is almost complete and customer interest is ripe. 
“They want to see some final results of actual clinical studies with our product, like a retinol microsphere in facial cream. What does it do when applied to a person?,” Day says. 
With funds and assistance from NC IDEA, the Durham-based founders can now begin clinical trials, which they hope will soon turn into paying customers.
“That would take us out of a Duke lab and into our own space, which would propel us to a revenue-producing business,” Day says. “We were doing back flips when we got the grant. It could be huge for us.”