April 11, 2007

Innovations: CU professor's biodegradable composites made from plant materials go to market

Biodegradable composites made entirely from plant materials, developed by Anil Netravali, Cornell professor of fiber science and apparel design, and soon to be found in commercial products, promise to save landfill space, reduce carcinogens in homes and workplaces and boost the economy of central New York.

Netravali has been working for several years to create the composites, and last year he partnered with Pat Govang, the former industrial partnerships director for the Cornell Center for Materials Research, to form e2e Materials LLC, to sell a product based on one of his patents: "green" biodegradable composites made entirely from plant fiber and a resin derived from soy protein.

Composites are materials combining a reinforcing material with a moldable "glue" or resin. Examples range from fiberglass and the carbon-fiber composites used in aircraft parts to reinforced concrete. Unfortunately, most glues used do not break down in landfills and sometimes are toxic.

The new company's first product will be a replacement for particleboard. Particleboard contains resins based on formaldehyde, which has been found to be carcinogenic and has sometimes been blamed for "sick-building syndrome." Formaldehyde-based particleboard is on the way out, and the industry is scrambling for replacements. According to Govang, e2e has the only cost-competitive one, and it is several times as strong as particleboard; that means the same strength with less weight, reducing shipping costs. Early customers include Herman Miller, a leading office furniture company.

A lot of office furniture and low-cost home furniture is made of particleboard covered with various laminates, and the current supply chain isn't very efficient, says Govang. Typically, particleboard is made from trees grown in one part of the country, shipped elsewhere to be made into particleboard, which is then shipped to the furniture factory as 4x8 sheets that must be cut to the needed size. By the time the product is sold at a store in Ithaca, for example, very little of its value impacts the community.

Govang says e2e will make its products from soy and fibers grown in New York state, and that the fibers -- mostly flax and bamboo, -- can be grown on farmland now considered marginal and lying unused. "Rural poverty levels in upstate New York are significant and increasing; we see this as an opportunity and would like to have a positive impact on the agricultural base here," he said.

Netravali said that the resin-making process complements the manufacture of biodiesel fuel from soybeans: Biodiesel is made from the oil, and Netravali's resin is made from the remaining meal after extracting the oil. The new company is negotiating to work with a biodiesel plant being developed by the State University of New York at Morrisville.

As an added selling point, e2e's composites will be formed by compression molding to the exact size and shape the furniture factory needs, reducing their manufacturing costs.

After deciding to form their company, Govang and Netravali attended a Pre-seed Workshop sponsored by the Cornell Center for Technology, Enterprise and Commercialization, the Center for Life Science Enterprise -- the technology transfer unit of the Cornell Institute for Biotechnology and Life Science Technologies -- and the Cornell Center for Materials Research. The workshop organizes start-up company "wannabees" into teams consisting of an inventor, a business person, a lawyer and students from Cornell's Johnson School to determine whether a business idea is viable. The climax is a pitch to a panel of real venture capitalists.

"The pre-seed was a great experience," Netravali said. "They give you a complete idea of what is involved in starting a business, how to go from one step to the next, how to get investors."

Experience gained in the workshop paid off with top honors from UNYTECH '06, a pitch event hosted by the Upstate Venture Association of New York, a technology transfer grant to Cornell from the New York State Office of Science, Technology and Academic Research for further development of the process, and a Grant for Growth from the Metropolitan Development Association of Syracuse. On April 5, e2e won a $100,000 prize in the first EssentialConnections.org Emerging Business Competition, sponsored by M&T Bank and the New York Business Development Corp. The company is negotiating for further funding from Excell Partners, a not-for-profit venture capital enterprise created by the University of Rochester, and BR Ventures, a student-run venture capital enterprise at Cornell.

The company is trying to grow without commercial venture capital, Govang said, because that requires giving up control. "We're taking a long view," he said.

Netravali is happy to let Govang handle such things. "My contribution to the company is the basic research, coming up with different kinds of resins that can be fed into the company, while benefiting Cornell at the same time through patents," he said.

The company expects to commercialize future ideas from Netravali's lab and maintain other Cornell connections. For example, Govang said, Johnson School students helped with market and supply chain research, and the company will soon recruit a couple of Cornell engineers.