How Sonovia moved from nano-coating masks to textiles

Sonovia was founded as a start-up in 2013, following 10 years of research at Bar-Ilan University and four years of EU-funded research to fight hospital-acquired infections.

 Founder of Sonovia Joshua “Shuki” Hershcovich (photo credit: COURTESY OF SONOVIA)
Founder of Sonovia Joshua “Shuki” Hershcovich
(photo credit: COURTESY OF SONOVIA)

As the corona epidemic rose to its peak, my mother was in an isolation ward in an Israeli hospital. She did not have COVID but was in isolation because of a highly contagious infection she had picked up in the hospital, one resistant to antibiotics.

In 2013, it was reported that 1.7 million Americans develop hospital-acquired infections (HAIs) each year, and 99,000 die of HAIs annually. Deaths in the US and Europe together attributed to HAIs reach 136,000 annually. The direct financial burden of HAIs is estimated to account for €7 billion in Europe and $6.5 billion in the US. Yet, research suggests that the total economic burden is significantly higher, as much as $45 billion per annum. Researchers have been engaged in an ongoing search to find ways to reduce this scourge.

Enter the corona pandemic, a time of isolation and loss for many. However, for one Israeli start-up, it was a time of impressive growth, propelling serial entrepreneur Joshua “Shuki” Hershcovich to No. 37 on The Jerusalem Post’s Top 50 Most Influential Jews of 2021 list, due to the success of his company, Sonovia, in the fight against corona.

Sonovia (formerly known as Nano-Textile, Ltd.) was founded as a start-up in 2013, following 10 years of research at Bar-Ilan University and four years of EU-funded research to fight hospital-acquired infections. The technology used by Sonovia was developed by Prof. Aharon Gedanken, a leading scientist in the field of nanotechnology, and his team at Bar-Ilan University. The project was developed in collaboration with the European Union; and 17 leading organizations from various countries, including four university research bodies, three health institutions, and other commercial and industrial entities.

I became aware of Sonovia in July 2019, before the world imagined living through a pandemic. On a pleasant summer evening in Jerusalem, the Jerusalem Development Authority, the Ministry of Jerusalem Affairs and Heritage, and the Jerusalem Municipality joined to present the first edition of OVERALL, held at the Tower of David Museum. OVERALL’s stated aim was to provoke fresh insights regarding the ways today’s global fashion ecosystem operates, both in theory and in practice.

SONOVIA LTD. employee Vidhura Malkowsky wears the ‘SalaMask.’  (credit: SONOVIA LTD.)SONOVIA LTD. employee Vidhura Malkowsky wears the ‘SalaMask.’ (credit: SONOVIA LTD.)

Not many think of Jerusalem as a fashion-design center, and that aspect of the vision of the organizers has certainly been put on hold for the time being. However, one session at the festival press conference I attended, was titled: CLOSET X: The Global Challenges of the Fashion Industry and Israeli Solutions: “What will your closet look like in 2030?”

The session took place in the Innovation Lab at the Tower of David, with Shay Herchcovich, co-founder of Nano-Textiles (now Sonovia) participating on the panel, and presenting the fabric of the future. Their company, Nano Textiles, was an Israeli start-up using nanotechnology to give an anti-bacterial coating to the fabric. It developed a breakthrough, single-step nano-coating process that uses less water, fewer chemicals, and can even be added to materials – even organic materials.

Over a year later, corona turned out to be the catalyst for the rapidly growing interest in textiles with anti-pathogenic properties. Previously, the hospitality, sportswear, and automotive upholstery market were seen as areas for potential growth. But corona created an unexpected skyrocketing demand for protective face masks.

The innovative technology for the production of anti-bacterial fabrics aiming to fight infections acquired in hospitals could be applied in personal areas including bedding, transportation, underwear, and now, the popular masks. The company has donated masks in Ethiopia and to hospital health care workers in Israel, starting early in the pandemic when supplies were not keeping up with the overwhelming demand, and continues to donate to front-line workers. “Kisharon” Jewish Disability Foundation in the UK and the Israeli cycling team Start-Up Nation also were beneficiaries of Sonovia masks.

Internationally known Bruckner Textile Machines based in Germany partnered with Sonovia to produce the revolutionary sono-based technology that embeds nano-particles with desired properties onto textiles, creating a durable added-value fabric that retains its properties in industrial and home washes.

Chief Technology Officer Liat Goldhammer-Steinberger is supervising the new machines in Germany. Currently, in Ramat Gan there are 30 employees who work for Sonovia, and another 70 who work for third-party manufacturers. The employees are a diverse group, with 15 immigrants, six employees from Brazil, and currently 30 from the Arab sector.

During our recent visit to Sonovia’s R & D labs in Ramat Gan, we saw the washing machines going wash after wash, all day long. Samples are checked for their antibacterial and antiviral properties, and also water repellent and heat resistant indexes. The chemical formulations are water-based, with no chemical binders or other harmful materials used. Lab scientists working in the process wear headset protective earphones for their personal ear protection from the processes and machinery.

Two Sonovia-developed machines are expected to be installed by the end of 2021 at Bruckner’s Industrial R&D line in Germany and at Delta’s Innovation Center in Israel to pilot the technology for brand name international sportswear, lingerie, and fashion houses. A third machine is planned for the Petah Tikva Kodak building in April.

As reported in The Jerusalem Post, “the company only produced its first mask in the first months of 2020. Last year, the company had more than $9.5 million in sales to hundreds of thousands of clients in more than 180 countries.”

Sonovia had a 176% increase in gross profit with the potential to disrupt the textile finishing and dyeing industries significantly with an increased demand for new functional products. The company completed its Initial Public Offering on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange in December 2020.

Operating within the functional textile finishing agents market valued at $5.2 billion in 2020 – projected to exceed $6.9 billion by 2027 – it also aims to enter the textile dyeing market, which was valued at $9.4 billion in 2018 and projected to reach $15.5 billion by 2026, reported Sonovia.

Its sono-finishing process eliminates the need for polymeric chemical binders and other harmful chemicals, and dramatically reduces up to 95% of the water consumption compared with conventional textile wet-finishing and eliminates chemical binders. Additional applications include flame retardancy, dyeing, and high-performance “DryFit.” Sonovia’s anti-pathogenic application displays 99.9% elimination of viruses, including SARS-COV-2 and other bacteria.

With climate change high on the world agenda, striving to use the most sustainable, environmentally-friendly chemicals is an important aspect of the process. Fabrics and surfaces treated with the technology are safe for use and for the environment.

Ben Katz, a MASA Fellow from Vancouver, studied material engineering at McGill University in Montreal and is currently a paid intern at Sonovia. “In these crazy times we are living in, I am so grateful that I have been able to come to Israel for a life-changing experience with the help of MASA,” he said. “With my background in materials engineering and experience in textiles manufacturing, I got an internship at Sonovia working with one of the most impactful Israeli companies in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s been a great opportunity for me to build on my engineering skill set and learn the start-up culture while working on products that help save lives.”

Only a few years ago it was said that the textile industry in Israel is over and finished. Now, this breakthrough may be the beginning for the industry to return to a home base in Israel, as Sonovia is planning to bring textiles with their technology back to Israel in the periphery, possibly the Negev, and to provide hundreds of new jobs.

Masks were an opportunity, according to Shuki Hershkowitz, who would like to see Sonovia become a unicorn with its application helping people around the world.  ■