In this exclusive interview with Bárbara Silberberg Cargill, co-founder and marketing manager of Copptech, an innovative Chilean company with a patented antimicrobial technology, on the advantages of its copper and zinc-based technology, its plans to develop the medical market, and the importance of Asia to Copptech’s mission to “protect half the world’s population”. This interview was originally conducted in Spanish.
To begin with, Bárbara, can you tell us a bit about Copptech and the reason for its establishment?
About eight years ago, my brother and I built Copptech around a copper and zinc-based technology that was discovered in a Chilean laboratory. Recognising its potential, we wanted to commercialise this technology and bring it to the masses. First, this technology eliminates fungi, bacteria and viruses from any material into which it is introduced. We immediately thought this would be useful for the medical field. Imagine a doctor’s uniform, which is one of the most contaminated elements of a hospital – even more than the bathroom – because a doctor goes to see you, who has a bacterial infection, and then goes to see the patient in the next room, transferring that patient your bacteria through his clothes. Nowadays, everybody knows how microbes like viruses can spread and cause disease and even a global pandemic, but it was not like that before.
We currently have our headquarters and lab in Chile, but we might move soon. Since March, we have been having meetings with the UK embassy about the possibility of relocating there through their Global Entrepreneur Program (GEP). We also have an operational office and a factory in China because many of our suppliers as well as many of our customers’ factories are there. In addition, we have a sales office in California, the US.
Our vision is to protect half of the world’s population through our partners, using our Copptech technology as an ingredient brand.
In brief, what exactly is the Copptech technology?
It is basically an antimicrobial additive that can be incorporated into the production process of plastics or yarns to make the finished product – such as clothing or building materials like concrete, cement, melamine, etc. – antimicrobial, which protects it from the premature degradation caused by fungi, viruses or bacteria. In addition, it decreases the spread of these microbes, which can remain and reproduce on surfaces and products. In essence, it is a new parent technology that functions as a protective shield, creating a barrier between the source of infection and people.
We are always innovating new formulations for different materials and performances. For example, we have to make sure that our additive does not change the colour of our customer’s material, its durability or any other essential aspect. In the end, we always manage to achieve almost all the requirements our potential customers have because we have a very good team. In our laboratory in Chile, on the one hand, we have a microbiology area that looks at microbial growth, and on the other hand, we have our development team that looks at how to apply the technology to the material. We call this process the ‘antimicrobial challenge’: how to ensure that a potential customer’s product incorporates Copptech technology to kill viruses, fungi and bacteria in an easy and cost-effective way.
What are the advantages of your technology?
Our technology has two main advantages. The first is that we can be integrated into our customers’ supply chain seamlessly. We do not oblige our customers to buy an additional machine because that can be a very big or expensive hassle. Many of our competitors do require their clients to change parts of their processes. On the contrary, we simply go to their plants with our technicians, evaluate where we can add the Copptech technology, and keep testing the processes until we get the perfect result. As a result, we offer the advantage of seamless integration.
The second is about cost. There are different companies doing something similar to Copptech, but 90 percent of them globally use silver as a component. Besides the fact that silver can be very harmful to both the environment and people, it is also a precious metal so it is very expensive. We would say that our competitors’ products are about 70 percent more expensive than ours.
When we started, we realised that we were going to have to work hard to achieve low costs, as technology is generally seen as a ‘price premium’. As a result, during the first few years of Copptech, we worked very hard to achieve competitive pricing, as our mission is to protect half of the population, which we can only achieve if we can play in the mass consumer product segment. Subsequently, companies realised that our technology was not so expensive, which means that they could use it not only for their premium products, but also for mass consumer products – this eventually expanded the demand for our Copptech technology.
Can you give us some success cases of Copptech technology being used?
Copptech’s growth as a company is rooted in the concept of an ‘ingredient brand’. An ingredient brand is a component product of another end product manufactured by another company, so it forms a ‘co-branding’ alliance with that other brand. A very famous example is Gore-Tex, a technical textile product that is closely associated with sportswear for its water-repelling benefits.
The first thing we did was a collaboration with a Chilean company called Monarch. We started with antimicrobial socks, because eliminating bacteria prevents socks from smelling bad. It also supports the regeneration of skin tissue, which is very beneficial for diabetic patients who may suffer from wound healing problems. These antimicrobial socks were also very useful for military personnel going on expeditions to humid countries where fungal infections were a risk.
We had another successful collaboration with the company ARAUCO, which is one of the largest global suppliers of melamine for furniture. Infectious diseases are mostly spread by contact, so it makes a lot of sense for us to work in this area.
Another product that incorporates our technology is a type of wood panel, OSB wood panels, for construction, through our collaboration with an American company, Lousiana Pacific (LP). We discovered that, by eliminating bacteria, we also prevented termite infestations since termites normally eat the bacteria living in the wood. On top of that, the Copptech technology also ensures that the termites do not want to feed on the wood, creating a hostile environment for them. This is a huge benefit, since without termite infestations, the wood is more structurally sound and can last for 30 years. That is why we have contracts with them in Chile and we have even been expanding to the US with them.
These collaborations show that there are many industries in which our technology can offer great benefits. Currently, 70% of our activities are in the industrial area and the rest is in the textile sector.
With the COVID-19 situation, how have your operations been affected?
When COVID arrived in Chile in March 2020, we took the first step to see if our technology would help. We worked with the University of Southampton in the UK with Professor Charles W. Keevil, who is one of the global experts in antimicrobial technology. We told him we wanted him to certify whether Copptech works against COVID. We were 90% sure it did because our scientists had explained to us that the virus had a similar structure to other viruses that our technology already worked against, but we had to be sure. The results were extremely good as we had positive results for many materials such as melamine, textiles, paints and more.
COVID gave a lot of visibility to the subject of infectious diseases. As Copptech, we had already been talking about all these microbes for a while, so after the emergence of COVID many of our contacts were very impressed with us, although obviously we did not predict the arrival of COVID!
However, as an ingredient brand, we form long-term partnerships – lasting for ten years or more – which means that our sales did not exactly skyrocket, though what did happen was that many potential customers who had been hesitant about our technology decided to take the plunge and initiate a long-term partnership with us.
Another thing is that COVID made it easier for us to make our pitch, because now people already understand what a microbe is, the importance of protecting themselves, and so on; therefore, our commercial team doesn’t have to start their pitch by explaining all this.
A final impact COVID had was to motivate us to think about setting up more production sites outside China for supply chain security.
Do you plan to enter the medical sector with your technology?
Today, the medical area is our top priority. We want to start with a medical patch that helps wounds heal faster and prevents them from getting infected because wound infections are one of the highest causes of patient mortality, especially in countries that have more rudimentary medical facilities or less access to hygienic standard care. In fact, we already have the product ready: in 2016 we did a study on this patch with the National Health Service in the UK.
The study we did involved patients who had caesarean sections. Normally the mothers only stay one night in the hospital and then go home with a medical patch and disinfectant. Many come back with infections and have to stay three to five more nights. In our study, our patch was the only one that was able to prevent infections, decreasing the rate of women being readmitted to hospital for infection by 38% – a fabulous result, as we expected a reduction of only 5%!
Unfortunately at that time we did not have the capacity to provide this product because we were too small a company to provide the service well. Now we are looking for a way to develop it and deliver the product to patients. In order to achieve this, we need funds and that is why we are in the process of raising capital – a Series B round. That said, we are looking for a partner more than capital, and specifically a partner who can take us to our vision of protecting half the world and find other strategic partners who share the same vision. Here is a video we made for our fundraising efforts.
Finally, do you have any advice for Latin American companies that want to enter China or Asia?
I believe that we are in an increasingly global world and we have to dare to not just stay local but to have the courage to learn a lot from people in other countries. What we have realised is that each of the countries we work in has their own perspective and ways of working, and we try to learn and adapt from all of them to make our product and our services better and better.
Opening our office in China has played a fundamental role in Copptech’s scaling and growth in recent years. Asia is establishing itself as a continent with not only operational, but also innovation and technology potential. A company that wants to be at the forefront of technology and innovation needs a strong presence in this continent.
The pandemic has taught us that, oftentimes, physical distance is not as relevant when your partner and you share the same principles. It is patently clear to us that if we want to protect half of the world’s population, Copptech has to reach Asia.