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Matt Wilcox | Alginates, Newcastle University

Showing how seaweed can combat obesity

Alginates (better known as seaweed to many of us) are having big impacts on the marine economy, aquaculture and agriculture, and also healthcare. Matt Wilcox, who took part in Biotechnology YES in 2008, is part of a group of scientists at the forefront of exploring which properties of alginates can be beneficial in food.

Following a first degree in biotechnology from the University of Northumbria, Matt started PhD research at Newcastle University into ‘bioactive alginates’.

Matt Wilcox  - Showing how seaweed can combat obesity
“YES taught me about patents and other IP protection and helped me interact with the Technology Transfer Office (I hadn’t known it existed).”

Proof-of-concept opportunity

He was fortunate to have two supervisors with industry experience. One had worked with a pharmaceuticals company on using protective effects of alginates in a common remedy that helps treat acid reflux and aspiration. With his other supervisor he began research to answer the question “What else can alginates do to other digestive enzymes?”

Effects on lipase began to suggest alginates in food could have a useful role in how the body digests and expels fat. In the second year of his PhD, Matt took the opportunity to “cobble together a claim and use an analogous approach” to take to Biotechnology YES where he learnt a huge amount in a short space of time.

Matt’s team got through the regional heat and won ‘Best Protection of IP’ at that year’s Final. “YES helps you look at your own research in another light.”

Proving claims for commercialisation

With the information he learned during Biotechnology YES about patents and other IP protection, as well as looking at the patent landscape and doing basic market research, Matt was able to further develop commercial ideas based on his research and to interact with the University’s Technology Transfer Office, which – until that point – he didn’t even know existed.

European regulations made it tougher to claim health benefits for alginates without very specific, verified and approved research findings for the right populations. Matt needed additional finance for more research. The BBSRC has been tremendously supportive of Matt’s work. A BBSRC CASE Studentship covered most of his PhD, and a BBSRC Enterprise Fellowship covered the rest.

Confidence and skills gained through YES helped him pitch for funding provided by serial entrepreneurs as well as RCUK Business Plan Competition funding and commercialisation grants.

Top impacts

Intellectual property 
Matt convinced Newcastle University this idea has commercial potential. Its Technology Transfer Office is helping apply for patents worldwide, with one granted already in New Zealand.

Benefits to health and society 
Around 95-100% of all fat in our diets is digested and absorbed into our bodies. The research Matt and colleagues do shows alginates in food can interact with enzymes that digest fat and get rid of it so less is stored by the body.

Licensing to fund further trials 
Further human trials are planned in collaboration with industry which will help show how, combined with reduced fat intake and exercise, using alginates as ingredients could help make us healthier. A planned new licensing deal will take research closer to commercialisation.

More information

Read more about Matt’s research here


Young Entrepreneurs Scheme

  • Haydn Green Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship
  • Nottingham University Business School
  • Jubilee Campus
  • Nottingham, NG8 1BB