Specialist Interview with James Clayton, Director of Innovation

Gain insights from James Clayton, Director of Innovation at Microban, as he shares his journey and expert perspectives on antimicrobial innovations.

As the Director of Innovations at Microban International, James Clayton has worked to redefine antimicrobial solutions through groundbreaking innovation and discovery. In an exclusive interview, James shares key industry insights and his enthusiasm about Microban's latest and most advanced technologies.

Watch the full interview here

What inspired your pursuit of innovation, and how did you start in this field?

My training as a scientist is in Microbiology. It is such a great science to get into, and there’s lots of new science behind it; you’re always discovering something in the field, and I was lucky enough to work in some very interesting organizations in my career.

I was always very curious about the science of microbiology and how I could impact the world around me with new innovations and new ideas.

Predominantly, my career has been spent supporting other teams and supporting development teams, and I was very fortunate to get this opportunity at Microban to really take all of those learnings, all of the interests and curiosities I’ve had, and ideas that I’ve had and actually start to bring them to fruition under the Microban umbrella.

Could you elaborate on your role as Director of Innovation and how you foster innovation at Microban?

My role is really diverse. It’s almost cradle to grave in the sense that we start with a concept, an idea - and that idea may come from various different sources - and we take that idea all the way from inception, all the way to development, and then hopefully launch into the market.

Now, of course, not everything launches for various reasons, so my role and my team’s role is to either create or find new technologies that will be impactful to the business and our customers with Microban.

What aspect of working in innovation do you find most gratifying?

So, innovation is just so broad. There are so many things that we can consider, and it’s almost like a blank state to some extent, where you have the chance to see, create, and follow the journey of something completely new.

Innovation allows us to look at all kinds of different technologies, speak with some amazing people in other businesses and academia, and then follow its journey. So there’s nothing more satisfying for someone in R&D like myself and the team here to be able to see something they’ve worked on come to market and see in people’s homes or in businesses and industries. It’s just so satisfying to see that happen.

How do you stay informed about the latest trends and developments in the industry?

As a scientist, you might expect that someone like me would be looking at scientific journals, etc., and that’s true. We have an extensive library online, journal subscriptions, and things of that nature that allow us to keep in touch with the latest signs and the latest thinking.

But trends come from many different places, and many of those trends are actually driven by customers. So it wouldn’t be a surprise to anyone to know that the current trend is around greener, safer chemistries and sustainability. That’s certainly a megatrend that we’re looking at constantly.

What changes have you witnessed in the industry over the years?

The industry is evolving. We’re finding new ways to find solutions. It seems generic, but you know what tends to happen is that we’ll have a palette of chemistries that we use that typically has a shelf life of 15 to 20 years in the industry, and then it evolves and changes. What we’re finding is that just like with just about everything in life these days, that is accelerating, social media has eyes on just about everything, and regulations are evolving. So in the industry, we need to be keeping ahead of the curve, and for that, it really comes down to what’s new, what’s moving the needle, what’s exciting, and what could add new claims and new benefits. What is more sustainable?

Competition is strong; customers are demanding as they should be because it's competitive in their markets, and we need to keep ahead of that and the only way we do that is by searching for and developing new products. Unlike some companies in our industry, we have an extremely strong R&D function, and the fact we have an innovation group is unusual in the industry. In fact, it may even be unique.

What current challenges does the industry face?

The challenge, I would say, is predominately regulatory challenges, and I think, again, that’s evolving. What we’re finding is technologies that have been around for, in some cases, centuries, and it will have been scrutinized in some cases unfairly, I think, but that is happening, and that is something that we have to be aware of and be ahead of.

The challenge of what we do, especially on the antimicrobial side of the business, is that you can’t see microbes, right? You can’t see them with the naked eye. Sometimes, that messaging is not always clear to every customer. So, being able to communicate that in a meaningful way is important, and that will always be a challenge.

The market may be skeptical of some claims, some of the ideas, and some of the performance measures. We need to convince customers and continue to promote our ideas and our technologies and the benefits of those and that it is true science, and it is backed by that.

Can you explain the misconceptions surrounding metal technologies?

Metals are in an interesting situation. With any chemistry, there are two major concerns. One is environmental toxicity - so what happens to the fate of that metal when it gets into the waterways, soils, and sewer systems? The other is toxicological to humans and animals.

In general, there will be studies that are done in either environment, so that is: humans, animals, waterways and also fish, and so on. That science will be indicative of a potential problem, and that, in turn, becomes a risk-benefit analysis by the regulators and the legislator, and unfortunately, that can be misinterpreted, or the risk is assessed in such a way that regulators would rather ban something than actually investigate the true reason and science behind it.

So for silver, for example, not that that's under any real pressure, but I mean silver has been used for millennia in terms of storage of water, drinking, we wear it around our necks and around our wrists, and so to think there is an issue surprises me.

A lot of the concern is more around nanoparticles of silver getting into humans and into waterways and what that could do. I just don’t think we know enough really to say that is a real issue and something we should ban.

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Could you outline the planning and development process of new antimicrobial and odor control technologies?

So it starts with an idea, which may come from various places. It may also come from within. So, we may have new antimicrobials on the radar. I will say that often, the beauty of R&D is not to synthesize and create a new molecule either for anti-odor or antimicrobial properties; it’s actually looking for synergies. So a good amount of what we do is we combine ingredients together, almost like a chef would, to create something completely new, and often, you see synergies that are unexpected. And the synergies' properties give you something new and different.

Once that discovery has been found, you can then start to think about: what are the steps involved in taking it from a beaker to the market, into people’s products, into manufacturing, whatever that may be. Things you need to think about: the chemistry of the formulation and the performance of the formulation. Can you take a product from a beaker and make several tons of it? That is not an easy thing to do. Can you source the raw materials? And can they come together in the right location to manufacture? Are the raw materials economically viable? We also look at the regulations and the safety toxicity profile as another step as well.

Then, of course, working with customers, we make tweaks and things and add some benefits. We certainly look to how we can take this material - let's say it's for a textile, can we go into a textile mill? Reproduce the performance that we’ve seen on a small scale and know that when it's out in the market, it still performs in the way we see it in the labs. So lots of steps and a lot more details to it than what I’ve just said, but those are the basic framework.

Among the recent technologies launched by Microban, which excites you the most?

Ascera™ is terrific! For us, that is a technology that we’ve been working extremely hard on, and it fits the trends of today where we’re not using heavy metals. Again, I will say I think metals have a place in the market, and they’re still effective, but for those customers who want to avoid metals, it is a great alternative. It is effective in a number of different polymer substances and other substrates. So you’ve got all those advantages. It’s easy to work with. It's economically viable. I think the team here did an amazing job with that.

I have to say, when I came into Microban, that was well on its way in terms of product development, so I can’t take any credit, but great job by the team, and I think it will have an impact in the market for sure.

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