Tech pioneer makes fridge-free medicines possible

The startup on a mission to democratise access to vaccines through refrigeration-free technology

July 12, 2023
© BSIP SA / Alamy Stock Photo
© BSIP SA / Alamy Stock Photo

The technology able to refrigerate essential vaccines has been described by UNICEF as nothing short of “revolutionary”. 

Approximately 50% of viable vaccines are lost because of the need for expensive refrigeration during transport and storage, resulting in a staggering 1.5 million infant deaths globally. Recognising this urgent problem over a decade ago, an academic at University of Bath embarked on a mission to mitigate the need for expensive refrigerated transport and storage and improve global access to vaccines. 

Asel Sartbaeva, CEO and co-founder of University of Bath spin out EnsiliTech, successfully developed a groundbreaking new method to grow a customised shell that protects the fragile biological entities in vaccines, so they remain stable even when taken out of refrigeration. 

This extraordinary breakthrough caught the attention of the esteemed Royal Society of Chemistry’s Emerging Technologies Competition in 2020, where Asel won in the Health category. It wasn’t until she won the competition that Asel realised the true potential of the technology. She said, “After the judges announced that I had won, I received letters to tell me that a few of them wanted to talk to me – the next day I was having conversations with investors. It was immediately clear that they could see the case for business. The competition gave me the push that I needed.”

As a winner of the Emerging Technologies Competition, Asel received crucial funding and support necessary to spin out EnsiliTech. Beyond this, she was also connected with partners like Spin Up Science and InnovateUK, leading to an initial fundraising round that exceeded the target by a wide margin, amassing well over £600k. The company has since raised a $1.2m pre-seed round to validate the technology and build its own lab. 

Today, EnsiliTech employs a talented team of dedicated individuals. Asel's personal journey has been nothing short of monumental, transforming from an academic to the CEO of her own business. The company is now poised to enter pre-clinical trials, having secured contracts with top 10 antibody and vaccine producers. Its animal vaccine – a key weapon in the fight against antibacterial resistance - is set to hit the market by December. 

Vaccines have long been hailed as the cornerstone of disease prevention, safeguarding countless lives worldwide. From early childhood, immunisation against 8 to 10 pathogens helps protect against diseases that can cause serious harm or death. With EnsiliTech leading the charge, the landscape of vaccine storage is forever changed. In addition to being a pivotal step towards safeguarding the world's children, the application of this technology holds promise in pandemic preparedness, oncology, and preventing antibiotic resistance. The days of losing precious vaccines in transit and storage are numbered, and a brighter future for global healthcare is within our grasp.

Up to 5 million people die every year from vaccine-preventable disease, in large part because cold chain infrastructure fails and results in vaccines being spoiled and becoming ineffective when administered.

Up to 50% of vaccines are wasted every year, due to cold chain failures. While those are largest in LMICs, richer countries have reported vaccine losses on the scale of millions of dollars due to cold chain failures too. 

Cold chain vehicles alone contribute over 32 million tonnes of CO2 annually, with cold chain failures producing a further 23 million tonnes.

Vaccination directly helps the survivability of children under 5, and a direct correlation between infant mortality and birth rates has been proven. Higher birth rates follow higher infant mortality rates, lowering women's health outcomes in LMICs. By expanding vaccine accessibility for infants, we improve women's health outcomes and well-being, and, indirectly, women's professional status and independence.

A recent study by Kurzweil et al (2021) on the environmental impact of COVD19 mRNA-based vaccines in Germany has shown that transport accounts for up to 99% of total carbon footprint, which is orders of magnitude worse in LMICs.