Chemistry prof receives $450K NSERC grant to research molecules for tattoo technology

Can temporary or semi-permanent tattoos look as good as the real thing? Faculty of Science chemistry Professor Christopher Caputo thinks so and is hard at work with his team to produce a new range of colours.

Caputo recently received a $450,000 Natural Sciences & Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Collaborative Research and Development (CRD) Grant with Toronto startup Inkbox to study molecules to improve semi-permanent tattoo technology.

Christopher Caputo. Photograph by B.D. Colen, Faculty of Science communicator in residence

NSERC contributed $300,000, while Inkbox is pitching in an additional $150,000 over three years.

The partnership is expected to result not only in more colour choices, but also potentially new molecules that the team will develop from scratch using natural chemicals from fruits and vegetables. Currently, only one colour, a blue/black, is available for semi-permanent tattoos.

“This is fun, exciting, fundamental science,” said Caputo, who will work with Postdoctoral Fellow Sanjay Manhas and MSc students Fiona Jeeva and Lucas Torres. “Once we have a better understanding of how the current molecules interact with the skin – specifically how they bind to and dye the skin – we can use this knowledge to build new molecules with different colour properties but the same bonding capability.”

“The tattoos actually change the colour of your skin,” said Caputo, who worked at Inkbox before coming to York, and tested a bunch of first-application tattoos on his own skin.

Inkbox is looking forward to the results. “The collaboration with York University enabled by the CRD allows Inkbox to leverage the talents of top researchers to pursue new products, new intellectual property and to access valuable scientific expertise,” said Ian Mallov, a research chemist at Inkbox. “As one of Canada’s 25 fastest growing companies, having top personnel and access to great research facilities will allow Inkbox’s research and development to keep driving our growth.”

Semi-permanent tattoos last anywhere from one to three weeks depending on the person’s skin. “That means there are no regrets,” said Caputo. “No one is stuck with a tattoo design they no longer like or want forever.”

Many people get semi-permanent tattoos as a trial run for a permanent one. This way, they can experiment until they decide on the design, size and location they prefer. And, unlike the peel, wet and stick variety of tattoos kids may be familiar with, Inkbox works with a specific molecule in a common South American fruit that is not only edible but binds to the skin to create a real semi-permanent tattoo.

One of the advantages of collaborating on the research with Inkbox is it allows graduate students and postdocs to get real-world experience and to witness their research in action.

“It’s great that startups can leverage university expertise,” said Caputo. “It gives students a unique opportunity. Chemistry can be quite abstract, so this is a way to bring it to life to solve practical problems. It takes fundamental chemistry and creates a product in a retail environment where thousands of people can access it.”

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