Märt-Erik Martens is the CEO and co-founder of Gelatex, a materials technology company pioneering the production of nanofibrous materials through its proprietary halospinning technology.

What are nanofibers and how are they used?

If we look at the history of the development of technology, generally every great breakthrough in science or technology has emerged from material innovation. If we rewind clocks 100 years ago, Teflon, the first polymer, was synthesized by accident which is why we have plastics. These materials are now all around us, from my book covers to the table I am sitting at. At Gelatex, we’d like to think the next great breakthrough in human technology will come from synthetic biology, expedited by mammalian cell culture. If we can accurately control how cells are growing out and forming tissues, then we can do it in a scalable, cost-effective, reliable manner which opens up so many different opportunities we cannot even imagine.

An opportunity we are working on at the moment is cellular agriculture which means growing meat without the need for animals because we can mimic that in a bioreactor. In addition to agriculture, a large part of our business is in regenerative medicine. One way we do this is by treating chronic wounds which are painful and can remain for years without any improvements because of challenges like bacterial contamination and the body’s inability to close the wound. You need to treat this type of complex wound in a very specific manner with an antimicrobial agent and then a scaffold that would promote tissue formation which we manufacture.

Our nanofibers also help heal burn victims. Imagine this: when there is a human who has suffered a significant burn – like a class two or three-level burn – their skin tissue is completely destroyed. When the wound is treated using mainstream technology and methods, significant scar tissue forms because there is a lot of collagen deposition happening. The cells don’t know which direction to grow and what to do, which means the whole area is being covered with connective tissue, hence the scar.

The incredible thing about nanofibers is that you can provide an environment for the cells to repair skin tissue without any scarring.

So you’re helping humans regrow their skin?

Yes. Within regenerative medicine, we’re co-developing end products with multi-billion dollar companies including 4 out of the top 10 global wound care companies.

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Why aren’t nanofibers more widely used today for tissue engineering?

The challenge is that nanofibers are still quite expensive and unreliable to produce. I’ll add that in general nanofibers are nothing new, it’s just that the biggest challenge has been figuring out how to standardize and manufacture them in a continuous, reliable manner with normal unit economics. 

This is where Gelatex comes in. We are already 10 times more efficient than the largest competing technology. For reference, our machines can reduce the cost of nanofibers by more than 90% and make nanofibers usable in applications where it wasn’t possible before. 

How are you able to manufacture at scale?

An easy way to visualize what we have done is we’ve built a cappuccino machine with different buttons that can output different materials. We’ve built a technology platform that enables the production of nanofibers at low cost, which is attractive to many industries. 

We start by taking a polymer and dissolve it as sugar dissolves in water. All polymers dissolve in some solvent system but we mainly work with green solvents like water, ethanol, and so on. We have this polymer solution which is like a viscous liquid and then we utilize Halo Spinning which is our patented method on how to draw the fibers from the solution when the solvent evaporates. Then the fibers are collected as a nonwoven material on a substrate and then this material can be used. The type of raw material we use in any product determines the properties of it, so if the product is used for cell-based meat then the materials we work with are fully edible ingredients. 

What nanofiber applications is Gelatex targeting?

Our current business model is B2B. This means that we manufacture end products for businesses who commercialize them. What we need to do from our side is make sure that the production complies with a certain ISO manufacturing standard. We are currently working on getting production certified so that we can manufacture products that are used in hospitals. 

On our website, we highlight 20 different industries where nanofibers could be used. But we are not focusing on everything at the same time. Today we are focusing heavily on everything related to cell culture and tissue engineering. That’s your therapeutic applications, cell-based meats, and even organ models. Think of any time there is a new cosmetic or drug that is going to market. In Europe, cosmetics need to be tested on humans because you can’t do animal trials. With mammalian cell culture, you can test your product on an organ model. Human organs can grow on a petri dish and you can test your compound there which would behave exactly like human skin, liver, etc. 

Another product line we are exploring is revolutionizing absorption materials. The main challenge is that current absorption materials are oil-based and they take over 400 years to degrade. Especially in Europe, we want to move away from oil-based products so we need solutions that would deliver us the same performance. Nanofibers have massive potential to absorb a lot of liquid so these can be used for everything from oil spill removal applications to your general absorbing materials, such as diapers and disposable hygiene products. Our materials are on average 97% porous, meaning 3% is your polymer and 97% is the air that can be substituted with liquid. The main benefit of our nanofibers is that they can be manufactured out of bio-based ingredients which other fiber formation technologies really can’t. 

How does Gelatex’s approach differ from your competition?

There has been a shift from when we started especially as we pivoted the company away from producing textiles to offering our nanofibers to other companies. But nowadays, we are confident in what we do and where we are going so we are not afraid of competition. We have our technology patents and we know that nobody can come close to what we do. We follow our strategy and make sure we execute our milestones.

When we talk to potential customers, some people are hearing for the first time that what we do is even possible. Whenever you bring some disruptive technology to the world and introduce it you don’t get too many competitors or copycats. Our industry is growing and more funding is being poured in which is great to see. I see the whole ecosystem in food tech and biotech getting more active, but that means more customers for us. 

Do you see Gelatex as a medical company or an agtech company?

We’re a textbook deep tech company. The definition of deep tech is when you commercialize a scientific breakthrough and we like to think that we achieved this years ago. However, the markets that we are going after definitely fit in climate tech. Personally, my co-founder Mari-Ann Meigo Fonseca and I found our passion in the clean tech space and that is something that drove us as founders. When we stumbled upon cellular agriculture, it immediately followed all the same principles. 

What’s next for Gelatex?

The biggest drive for me is removing oil-based materials from the equation. For example, super absorbent polymers (SAP), and since you can’t manufacture SAPs from bio-based materials, you need to find clever ways to introduce materials that have the same properties. This is something that the whole world needs to start doing in many different industries in the next few decades to achieve our climate goals and net zero by 2050. Overall, in terms of our technology, we have the potential to take oil-based materials out of the equation and replace them with more sustainable bio-based materials which is what we will continue to do.