Nanotechnology group P2i was born after the Ministry of Defence co-funded a study to improve soldiers’ protective clothing against chemical attack.

Since then, the liquid repellent nano-coating technology that stemmed from Stephen Coulson’s PhD thesis at Durham university has been used to protect products ranging from mobile phones and hearing aids to clothing and footwear.

P2i was established in January 2004. After raising £40m over several funding rounds – including £11.4m last year – it employs 160 staff across the UK, Asia and US. “Spinning out the company was something that we wanted to do right back in 1997 when we invented the technology,” said Mr Coulson, P2i chief technology officer.

P2i’s technology – protected by more than 50 MoD-backed patents – employs a pulsed ionised gas created within a vacuum chamber to attach a thin polymer layer over the external and internal surfaces of a product.

The polymer, 1,000 times thinner than a human hair, lowers the product’s surface energy, so that liquids form beads upon contact and roll off. The result is a durable liquid-repellent coating that does not affect the product’s look or feel. P2i has installed more than 100 nano-coating machines within major manufacturing centres around the world.

The company’s technology, which also acts as an anti-microbial and flame retardant, has been used to protect more than 8m electronic devices, including Motorola mobile phones and 60 per cent of the world’s hearing aids. P2i doubled its sales from 2010-11 to £6m, and its customers include Timberland, the footwear and clothing group, and shoe brands K-Swiss, Adidas, Mizuno and Nike.

In addition, P2i has customers in both the life-science and filtration sectors, and has also sold a system to the MoD, which holds a 2.7 per cent stake in the business.

Other stakeholders include Porton Capital – which provided much of P2i’s initial funding and still holds a 20 per cent share – and several large venture capital companies such as Unilever Ventures, Naxos Capital Partners and Durham university.

“The biggest challenge once you’ve spun out the company is obtaining those first few customers and demonstrating that it’s a cost-effective industrial process,” Mr Coulson said.

In 2010, the group acquired Surface Innovations, a UK-based with a range of nano-coating patents that expanded potential applications for P2i’s technology to include anti-bacterial resistance.

“There’s no reason why our technology can’t be used on any solid object,” Mr Coulson said.

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