The Most Beautiful Molecule

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Sara Naseri has a vision. She believes that it is in the very act of trying, risking and believing that makes dreams come true. The fascinating thing is that she also dares to dream bigger and bolder than most of us. In 2008, at the age of just 16 she set out on a mission to prevent skin cancer.

It was at a local TEDx event in Copenhagen, Denmark that I first heard Sara Naseri’s fascinating story. It is a story of persistence, tears, ground-breaking science and being a young girl in a man’s world but never paying attention to this.

In high school, together with her friend and now business partner Emilie Kjeldsen, she began investigating how existing sun screen solutions could be improved. They wanted to cure skin cancer. During these experiments, they came up with the idea of creating an artificial layer of ozone, not in the sky, but closer to humans as a protective shield, where we can benefit from it.

Naseri says, “we thought that when there’s a lack of ozone in the ozone layer above us, then it should be possible to bring the ozone down to the ground and create a personal ozone layer on the skin. It was as simple as that.”

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When preparing their idea and concept presentation for the local Science Cup, they encountered a challenge—ozone is very corrosive and it can be very harmful to humans. It is a so-called aggressive oxidiser, which in larger quantities would attack mucous membranes. This means you can’t just add ozone to sunscreens. It has to be contained, encapsulated into something.

It was during a chemistry lesson that they first encountered the buckyball, a molecular structure that was to be the foundation of their future research.

The Buckyball: An Excruciatingly Researched Report noted, “perhaps the most exciting characteristic of the buckyball is that it is hollow on the inside, and Smalley insists that all elements in the periodic table will fit inside. This could create any number of practical uses, the most notable being in the fieldof medicine. Drugs could be administered molecularly, or more importantly, individual radioactive molecules could be contained within the buckyball for specific treatment.”

One of the inventors credited with the discovery of the buckyball is the Nobel laureate, Harold Kroto. Sara Naseri decided to go for the top and contact him directly—she called his office every day for months until one day he finally picked up the phone, and she got to share her idea. It immediately sparked an interest with Kroto who connected them with another leading scientist in the field.

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They began reproducing the buckyball molecules synthetically to test their idea—simply to open a molecule like you open the panel of a soccerball, fill it with ozone and close it again. After a significant bump in the road, the girls weren’t even considered for a place in the finals at the Science Cup. The jury didn’t believe the ideas to be their own, and they were told to go back to school and focus on their classes. They were devastated, however they quickly recovered from and decided to give it another go. In 2011, with support from their physics teacher, they entered into the Intel Global Challenge, a collaboration between UC Berkeley and Intel that seeks to support and promote entrepreneurship globally.

In her application, Naseri wrote, “BUCKY’o’ZUN has invented a technology, which as the first in the world, protects 99.99 % against all UV-radiation. The technology combines two natural UV-absorbing molecules and the final product is an easy mixable powder which can be added in existing products within multiple market segments. One of the problems caused by UV-radiation is the development of skin cancer, hence BUCKY’o’ZUN’s primary vision is to improve the prevention of skin cancer significantly.”

They won The Young Innovator Award and received a grant plus and even more importantly, attention on the world stage for technology entrepreneurship. This has also recently secured them significant funding from a Danish investment firm.

What started out as a school project rapidly turned into a serious endeavor involving external financing, patent applications and collaboration with top researchers around the world. The initial idea was to cure skin cancer, but realizing that this is very complex, the aim and driving force of the project became prevention. During the development process, multiple other application areas have emerged.

The applicatory opportunities of their component spans a broad range of areas such as sunscreen, textiles, paint, coatings and wood products. The BUCKY’o’ZUN technology solves these problems due to its ability to protect humans and materials against all UV-radiation.

Today, 21 year-old Sara Naseri is CEO of her own company, BUCKY’o’ZUN, has written two worldwide patents, set up product development in Japan, and has done a proof of principle at Yale. She is working with Nobel Prize winners on commercializing what has been named the most beautiful molecule in the world—the buckyball—and all this while still studying medicine in university!

Text by Louise Zastrow

THE SPRING ISSUE

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