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Halosource Vet Starts Company to Make Socks that Kill Bugs

Xconomy Seattle — 

For years, Halosource was what you might call a solution in search of a problem. It had anti-microbial technology that could theoretically kill viruses and bacteria anywhere and everywhere. But when it came down to making actual commercial products, it took many years to find its niche in purifying water.

Now one of the veterans from the early days at Bothell, WA-based Halosource, Simon Johnston, says the time has come for a few of the innovative antimicrobial applications that were too far ahead of their time. First on the list: socks.

I know, I know, what could possibly be innovative about socks? Cotton, polyester, wool, that’s all you need to know, right? It turns out Halosource spent a lot of time in the ’90s thinking about how to use technology that incorporates antimicrobial compounds into textiles. Socks, kitchen towels, bedsheets—these are all obvious fabrics used by millions of people every day, and which can become breeding grounds for hardy bugs like viruses, bacteria, or fungi.

Halosource still applies some of its technology to textiles, like odor-fighting kitchen towels, but this idea never worked for socks. The chemical application cost too much to be competitive, and you had to apply such large quantities of the finish that it made the socks too brittle. They’d fall apart after you ran a few miles in an ordinary pair of sweat socks, Johnston says.

“What looks great in the lab…when you go into the real world, sometimes you get into a real-world manufacturing site, you just don’t come out with what you thought you had,” Johnston says. “We spent a lot of time trying to put square pegs into round holes.”

Simon Johnston

Simon Johnston

The new variation on this bug-killing textile idea is taking shape at a Bellevue, WA-based startup called Antimicrobial Technologies Group. The company, led by Johnston and co-founder Pam Goldschmidt, has raised a modest $500,000 from friends and family to pursue their renewed bug-killing vision in socks. But the company isn’t focusing on just any kind of sock—it has its sights on people suffering from diabetic foot ulcers.

Why? The diabetes epidemic is raging, of course, affecting an estimated 25 million people in the U.S. Many of them suffer from poor circulation in their extremities, which leads to sores that get infected. The antimicrobial polymer technology, licensed from the University of South Dakota, is designed to overcome some of the previous challenges that made antimicrobial socks impractical. The chemical compounds embedded in these socks now come in such a potent dose that these socks look (and smell) just like any fresh cotton sock off the shelf, Goldschmidt says. The cost of the technology has come down so fast that the new socks can be mass-produced for pennies on the dollar, and compete on price at $10 to $20 a pair, along with other compression socks sold to diabetics to help with circulation, Johnston says.

Johnston, 63, is betting these new socks will sell. He’s ordered a shipment of 15,000 pairs that he plans to start selling directly to consumers online as soon as April. He’s hoping to capture at least a healthy slice of the market for diabetic socks, which has doubled from $50 million in 2005 to $100 million in 2008.

This renewed enthusiasm comes after some hard knocks. Johnston previously bought a shipment of 20,000 pairs of socks in 2001 with the same glimmer in his eye. He couldn’t sell them.

It must be noted that this isn’t the sort of thing that Johnston can make any sort of medical claims about. Evidence to suggest they can help heal infected sores is anecdotal. Friends who used some of his early shipments of socks told him they were odor-free. People who wore the socks have also said it gets rid of their athlete’s foot.

While the company is in no position to make any FDA-approved claims, it does support research at the University of South Dakota in Sioux Falls, Johnston says. That’s where Yuyu Sun, a polymer chemist, formerly at UC Davis, has furthered his work in making antimicrobial finishes more practical for industrial use. Johnston got to know him in the mid-’90s when he was at Halosource, and Sun was a scientific advisor to the company.

Sun and Johnston have ambitions that stretch far beyond socks. One of those ideas is for incorporating new antimicrobial chemical finishes into paints and caulks—the kind of material that faces a lot of microbes in kitchens and bathrooms. Another new frontier is with non-woven disposable materials that might be more appealing if they could stay bug-free—like facemasks, or patient gowns.

Still, the startup is really in its early days. I asked Halosource CEO John Kaestle what he thought of the concept, and he said he wasn’t very familiar with it. But he added, “All I can tell you is that commercializing technology is hard with a number of significant hurdles—regulatory, process chemistry, applications partners, supply chains, and go-to-market partners.”

Johnston says he knows the hurdles from his experience at Halosource. That’s why he’s fixed on the diabetic sock strategy, in hopes of slowly and steadily building a business from there.

“We don’t want to depend on a third party to make this work from the start,” he says. “Let’s hit some singles, sell some socks. In the beginning, that’s our sale. But we have a good chance to build a brand and do something special.”