Our #CapePioneers series showcases innovative local businesses that adapted to build resilience in the face of COVID-19. This week we speak to Afrigen a company that has recently made the news for their ground-breaking CBD nanozomal product and their work on a Covid-19 vaccine in South Africa.
“It allowed us to showcase our capabilities for vaccine manufacturing for South Africa. Not only for Covid-19, but the future generation of vaccines.”
What are the core capabilities of your business?
We are a very strong laboratory and technology-based company driving technological and product innovation. We have the ability to produce nanotechnology formulations - products with a very small particle size so that it becomes easily available for the body to take up. Our focus are on human and animal medicines or healthcare products – ointments, gels and oral formulations – that the body is able to absorb and use. Because many of the high value medicines are not soluble they are not bioavailable and cannot be optimally utilized for the purpose it is intended – healing or prevention of disease. So, for example, if you take hemp oil – broad spectrum CBD – only 6% of CBD oil that people consume is bioavailable - effectively absorbable - the rest is excreted very early after intake or it doesn’t penetrate the skin. Our product makes it possible for the body to utilize the full benefits of the active ingredients in those products.
So you produce products that can communicate with the body more effectively in order for our bodies to get the maximum benefits?
You have a very strong female-led business. Tell us a little bit more about that.
Yes, Afrigen is roughly 70% women. In the bio-sciences and health sciences space, women are actually quite dominant. I think there is a special connection for us with the health and biological sciences. We only have 12 staff members, of which 7 have PhDs, five of whom are women, and then we have two women with Masters degrees. However, we are a diverse team that includes two male employees with PhDs and two male engineers. Our support staff is also all women.
How has your business adapted to Covid-19?
Because we're a vaccine-based innovation company, Covid-19 created lots of opportunities for us. Afrigen has two components - one is the formulations and making existing medicines, more bioavailable – the other component, and this is the long-term work of Afrigen, is vaccine development.
During Covid-19, we partnered with Biovac and we actually produced the vaccine manufacturing plan for South Africa. This is the plan that President Rampahosa and Minister Blade Nzimande referred to recently. Biovac has the ability to make the antigen, the protein, and we have the ability to produce the adjuvants – the immune response booster. The combination of that is an effective vaccine.
Secondly, it created a space for us to complete our new facilities in Cape Town in just two-and-a-half months. We are 90% moved in, we have clean rooms, we have stability rooms, we have a unique liposomal production facility, we have offices, boardrooms… it is magic! Because of the lockdown, our shareholder Avacare Health made a very important strategic decision to provide us with capital funding to relocate our facilities. We could not operate optimally in our MRC based laboratories. It provided an opportunity for us to find an alternative facility and complete renovations in a very short period of time. It also allowed us to showcase Afrigen and our capabilities for vaccine manufacturing for South Africa. Not only for Covid-19, but the future generation of vaccines. So it was good for us from a technological and facility perspective.
Did you develop any products or services specifically aimed at combatting Covid-19?
Firstly, we changed the priority of our pipeline. We moved up the products which are suitable for immune-modulation and immune-stimulation. We have completed the concept of our liposomal vitamin C and are preparing for launch. We’ve brought selenium up the pipeline, Vitamin D3, all the vitamins and minerals that are suitable for immune-protection and stimulation and those we formulate into a liposomal or nanozomal product – allowing the product to reach the targeted areas in the body to enhance bioavailability.
Then, in the middle of Covid-19, on the 28th of May, we launched our nanozomal CBD+ range. We decided we're going to launch, because there have been claims, which still need to be validated, that that CBD may have some positive benefits for Covid-19. The benefits include lowering of anxiety, it’s very good for pain-management and, of course, also for sleep and relaxing.
This is why we made the news – we are the first nanozomal production unit in the southern hemisphere and this is the first nano-tech CBD product launched in Africa that was conceptualized, developed and produced on the continent right here in Cape Town.
In simpler terms, we take an ordinary CBD oil, a broad-spectrum CBD oil, and we put it through our unique processes. When it comes out of the production line, it is a water soluble compound that the body can use, while still containing all the necessary components and healing properties of the CBD. We currently put it into a liquid, we put it into a gel capsule and we put it into a balm, which has fantastic wound healing capabilities. We also put it into a muscle rub, which has measurable anti-inflammatory capabilities.
These products are now available online and in selected independent pharmacies. We are also in discussions with the biggest retailer in South Africa to get these products onto their shelves.
What has been a success for the business over this time?
I think profoundly for us, the ability to innovate from a vaccine based platform to a complementary medicine platform, that was phenomenal. And of course, for our shareholder to see that value. The other success is that we kept a highly-competent, energetic team focused and together during Covid-19, which I think was difficult for many, many companies.
Finally, we decided that we were going to be brave. We were going to launch our first high-tech product over this time and we are going to approach our shareholder to create capacity and further capabilities for us with the new facilities.
I think those are the two important things: keeping the people together and focused and the innovation on a platform that you wouldn't expect to use
What is the importance of you being in the Western Cape?
The Western Cape is the bio-tech hub of Africa. With UCT, UWC, University of Stellenbosch, the capabilities and the capacity here of these universities in the bio-technology space, it's just unbelievable. Our shareholders really like the Western Cape as a location. In terms of the efficiency of systems, the markets interest but again the knowledge base here is quite important. And it's proven to be important for us because we now have very, very close relationships with UCT and UWC . In fact, we now have post-docs working in the labs and we collaborate in a very extensive way to innovate and do further product development.
The other consideration also was the presence of the Medical Research Council, if there is a requirement for us to do pre-clinical work, it was all here. Then, of course, the other reason was BioVac was here. We needed an antigen protein vaccine partner, so it was the industry sector, the strength of the bio-tech industry and the environment. It’s a good environment to be doing this in.
What did you learn during the Covid-19 pandemic?
One of the most important things was to stay connected. Early on, we couldn't get into the labs and we're a lab-based organization. For me as the accounting officer and the MD of the company, I had to be really sure that I keep people motivated, connected and productive.
So we connected at regular times during a week, face-to-face virtually, just a check in or key business discussions. Often, I had meetings with no requirements for performance or deliverables, just ‘let’s check in’. In a way, it brought us closer together. The beautiful thing is that after four weeks trying to be productive off site, I asked the team: if I can get us back into the lab would you want to? And the answer was an overwhelming yes!
I think that, that focus to be productive and stay connected was very important. In the end, it’s about the people…