Capturing Covid-19: Start-up Aqdot uses molecular science to improve air quality
In 2020, as hospitals were overwhelmed with patients suffering with Covid-19, scientists at Aqdot—a Cambridge-based technology company—made a remarkable discovery. A product it had developed to remove household odours could inhibit the SARS-CoV-2 virus on surfaces and in the air.
Aqdot has developed what scientists call a “platform technology”—a system which has multiple different uses. Its technology is a series of barrel-shaped molecules called cucurbiturils, which are named for their shape after a family of pumpkins called cucurbita. The molecules can capture and—when given certain environmental triggers—release other molecules. Before the pandemic, the company had developed sprays to remove pollutants and allergens.
In partnership with the University of Cambridge, Aqdot conducted research in 2020 that showed that their cucurbiturils could capture Covid-19. The company received a £50,000 grant from Innovate UK, which is part of the government’s agency for investing in science and research to develop their technology to improve air quality on public transport. Co-founder Jing Zhang told Insider that their product “is significantly different from the harsh disinfectants typically used on hard surfaces because it is not harmful to human cells. By only targeting virus inhibition, it has the potential to be much safer to use around people in the air and on personal surfaces such as clothing and face masks.”
In 2013, Aqdot were winners of the inaugural Royal Society of Chemistry’s Emerging Technologies Competition and is regarded as one of its success stories. The competition awards funding to companies that it believes will tackle societal challenges and Aqdot’s technologies address issues faced by millions of people—for example, an estimated 21.3m adults in the UK live with allergies. Similarly indoor air pollution, which Aqdot’s technology prevents through capturing pollutants, poses a major risk to the health of millions of the poorest people globally. In fact, according to Our World in Data, indoor air pollution was attributable to 4.1 per cent of deaths last year and particularly affects people who don’t have access to clean fuels for cooking.
Since winning the competition in 2013, Aqdot has received millions of pounds in equity and grant funding and has doubled its number of employees. It has also brought several products to the market. As well as offering financial support, the RSC competition gave Aqdot access to mentoring from experts, including Ian Churcher of GSK and Keith Layden, then CTO at Croda International. According to Zhang, “the final pitching event was the highlight of our experience in the competition, we enjoyed delivering our pitch to the expert judging panel and networked with fellow competition participants and guests.”
Aqdot also conducts advanced academic research with the pharmaceutical sector, to use their capture and release technology in gene therapies—where treatment must be delivered into human cells without generating an immune response.