The rewards of serendipity | University of Oxford
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OSB archive

The rewards of serendipity

Pete Wilton

When, in 1985, Mark Moloney began to investigate how penicillin was formed he didn’t imagine that it would lead to advances in polymer chemistry and a new spin out firm employing 17 people.

As we’ve highlighted before Oxford was where vital research into the chemical, pharmacological and clinical development of penicillin took place (starting in the 1930s with Florey, Chain & Heatley).

But even by the 1980s quite how penicillin was formed chemically in its fungal source was still poorly understood, and the relevant chemical reactions were known to be highly complex and very unusual.

Mark, of Oxford University’s Department of Chemistry, tells me: ‘Our strategy to unravel this process involved working with highly reactive chemical entities called carbenes, which we used as a type of chemical ‘warhead’ to bind with, and allow subsequent identification of, the enzyme binding site which controlled the remarkable chemical reaction leading to the formation of penicillins.’

‘This was ‘pure’ academic research, with no obvious immediate use, and could never therefore be construed as ‘applied’.'

Polymer problem
The idea that this penicillin research might be relevant to polymers came from Bill Norris who had previously worked with Mark at Oxford’s Dyson Perrins Laboratory before moving to ICI Specialties.

Mark explains: ‘He rang me up and presented me with a problem he was working on relating to dye migration in plastics. This was a long-standing difficulty, well known in the industry, and relates to the instability of mixtures of polymers, resulting from their extreme chemical inertness and very different chemical properties.’

‘He suggested that my carbene reagents might provide a solution, in which we would use the ‘warhead’ properties to attach the relevant molecules of the materials together.’

They developed the idea and used an undergraduate project to test its practicality in the lab but Mark says that the notion that penicillin research might have an immediate impact on polymer chemistry ‘seemed ridiculous’ and that results from the initial work were unpromising.

‘But the germ of an idea had been sown, and the more we looked into it, the more the idea had potential; there had to be substantial value in simple chemical technology that permitted direct modification of a polymer surface.’

By 1998 they had established that it was possible to modify the surface of many organic polymers and inorganic materials to introduce colour using a simple chemical process. Mark describes this discovery as ‘unprecedented’:

‘Although we initially focused on colouring, principally because it gave an immediate initial indication of success, we had it in mind to design a process that would enable introduction of other types of functionality.’

Developing ideas
Convinced that the idea was worth pursuing, in 2003 Mark used funding from internal OU sources to appoint researcher Jon-Paul Griffiths, who rapidly developed a number of aspects of the idea, and retained complete ownership of the intellectual property. 

‘This funding enabled us to take the basic idea and demonstrate that it could be used to incorporate not only colour, but biocidal, fluorescent, adhesive, and pH sensing effects onto polymers which would normally be considered to be chemically too inert to allow such modification.’

‘We even surprised ourselves at what was possible; for example, we discovered that we could introduce fluorescence onto diamond, and have more recently demonstrated that we can impart aqueous and organic dispersability onto C60, carbon nanoparticles and nanotubes.’ 

After patenting some of this work Mark and colleagues sought to commercialise it through launching a spin out company, Oxford Advanced Surfaces (OAS), in July 2006 – with the help of Oxford University Innovation.

The new firm moved to facilities in the Centre for Innovation and Enterprise at Begbroke Science Park, just north of Oxford. The location was perfect, giving them access to the surface characterisation facilities of the Materials Department at Begbroke, but still keeping them close to the Department of Chemistry.

In 2007 OAS Group plc was listed on AIM, and now employs 17 people. The firm is currently developing the carbene technology, trademarked as ONTO, both in-house and in collaboration with companies in fields as diverse as electronics to commodity goods and healthcare. 

Looking ahead, Mark comments: ‘We are satisfied that our technology is robust and delivers measurable effects against commercially relevant objectives, but the challenge now is to demonstrate that it can be done within the financial constraints imposed by the market.’

In October 2009 Mark Moloney received THE's Serendipity Award for his work, an award that celebrates the unexpected outcomes of research.