Chemistry, foundation for Minnesota companies focusing on greener living
Feb. 12--Lots of entrepreneurs boast about "eating their own cooking," but Doug Ruth takes it to a whole new level. The CEO and founder of EarthClean, a clean-tech startup in South St. Paul, will pop a fingerful of his company's TetraKO firefight...
Feb. 12--Lots of entrepreneurs boast about "eating their own cooking," but Doug Ruth takes it to a whole new level.
The CEO and founder of EarthClean, a clean-tech startup in South St. Paul, will pop a fingerful of his company's TetraKO firefighting gel into his mouth to prove it's nontoxic.
EarthClean's product, made of 50 percent cornstarch, is a goopy example of how the green-chemistry movement is starting to grow beyond the seed stage.
Renewable, bio-based substitutes for petroleum-derived chemicals have been under development for several years in Minnesota, but now they're finally starting to sell.
Bio-based plastics are popping up in supermarket delis, consumer electronics and on the shelves at big retailers, and consumers and industry observers are beginning to pay attention.
Some see the state well-positioned as a hub for "green chemistry." At the second annual Minnesota Green Chemistry Forum at the University of Minnesota recently, Dale Wahlstrom, CEO of The BioBusiness Alliance, compared green chemistry to Minnesota's medical-device industry in its infancy decades ago.
But before the industry produces "the next Medtronic," there are challenges to overcome.
First, chemical startups are not like Facebook or Google, which were launched in college dorm rooms.
Cutting-edge chemistry requires laboratories and pilot production plants that can cost a cool million dollars up front before the first product hits the shelf.
products must undergo extensive and expensive regulatory review before they can be sold.
Third, studies show consumers will not buy a product just because it's environmentally friendly, people at the Green Chemistry forum acknowledged. Green companies have to demonstrate that their products can save money as well.
Fourth, Minnesota is competing not just with other parts of the country where green chemistry is bubbling, like California or Massachusetts, but countries like France, Brazil and Canada.
But that has not stopped people from dreaming.
Marc Hillmyer, a chemist and professor at the U of M, said the area has a cluster of green chemistry start-ups, led by NatureWorks LLC, "the juggernaut of renewable polymers."
The Minnetonka-based company, half owned by agribusiness giant Cargill and half by a Thai chemical company, makes a corn-based plastic that goes into everything from clamshell food cases in the deli section to potato chip bags for Target to iPhone cases.
NatureWorks has had a plant in Nebraska since 2002 but is building a second one in Thailand to be closer to its Asian customers, where half of its output is now exported, NatureWorks spokesman Steve Davies said.
Established giants like St. Paul-based Ecolab and 3M, which have long pedigrees in chemistry and polymers, also can play a role, the experts say.
"They're not green-chemistry companies but companies that can practice green chemistry," Hillmyer said.
Green chemistry favors the Midwest, with its feed stocks for new materials and abundant land and water, local experts believe.
And the area is growing the brains for a green chemistry workforce at the U, which opened the Center for Sustainable Polymers three years ago. The center, headed by Hillmyer, received a three-year, $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation last year.
The variety of products made with bio-based plastic substitutes once was limited to a few products like flimsy food containers but now includes clothing, carpets, electronic gizmos and other products of everyday life.
Just cruise the aisles of Target or Staples and pick up a slender plastic bottle of Method laundry detergent.
In this case, the green isn't the container. It's in the detergent itself, which carries a bio-based solvent made by Segetis, a Golden Valley startup, that allows the detergent to be super-concentrated.
Segetis, which employs about 35 people, uses a contract manufacturer but has a small "semi-works" at its headquarters that produces about 250,000 pounds of material a year.
Company spokeswoman Tess Fennelly said Segetis is planning to build its own plant with a capacity of "tens of millions of pounds." .
That sounds like a lot, but it's hardly a drop in the bucket of the 13 billion pounds of plasticizers produced globally each year. And it's that room to expand that drives companies like Segetis.
Gevo, a company that is headquartered in Colorado but licenses technology from Cargill, is retrofitting an ethanol plant this year in Luverne, Minn. to produce isobutenol, a basic building-block chemical for petroleum substitution.
Isobutenol's carbon structure can be altered to produce everything from gasoline to jet fuel, for which the company has a contract to conduct a study for the U.S. Department of Defense.
"It's not 10 years from now," Pat Guber, Gevo's CEO told the green chemistry forum audience. "We're doing it now," the former Cargill scientist said. "The game is to make it happen big."
EarthClean has a similar idea. The company started in a small shop in Minneapolis three years ago and gained exposure by winning the first regional Clean Tech Open competition in 2010, and went on to take third in the nationals later that year.
EarthClean moved last year to South St. Paul for more space, taking over a 6,000 square foot office-warehouse. Liana Palaikis, the company's PhD chemist and director of product development has a "lab" in the warehouse, marked off with blue tape on the floor.
The lab is crowded with plastic Home Depot buckets filled with white TetraKO powder, makeshift workbenches with microscopes, hand mixers to mix up beakers of the gel and Kermit the Frog, the company mascot, overseeing operations from a shelf.
In startup fashion, EarthClean operates on a tight budget. Palaikis, who spent many years as a chemist at 3M and has six patents to her name, dreams one day of a separate lab. "It would be really nice," she sighed.
EarthClean has been beta-testing TetraKO with local firefighting units but is just beginning to make sales.
Last year, EarthClean signed a contract to sell TetraKO to South Korea, pending government approval, and it has signed firefighting supply dealerships on the West Coast and in Kuwait, Ruth said.
The product costs about three to five times as much as conventional foam, but it knocks down fires at least five times faster, the CEO said.
That can save fire departments money on total time on a call and save firefighters' lives by reducing the time they are exposed to toxic smoke under heavy stress, Ruth said.
Last year the company, which has nine employees, had $135,000 in sales and it's projecting $1 million this year, Ruth said. The company doesn't expect to turn a profit until the end of 2013, he said.
But as a way of thinking bigger, the company is brainstorming ideas beyond firefighting.
"Which is why we named it EarthClean Corp. and not fire suppression inc." Ruth said.
THE HOUDINI PROBLEM
The ability to walk down the aisles of your neighborhood store and easily find green-chemistry products is a sign of progress, said Steve Kelley, director of the Center for Science, Technology and Public Policy at the Humphrey School and a former state senator.
"Three years ago, I don't think you could say that," he said.
The next steps are more research and innovation to lead to even more bio-based substitutes for petrochemicals in higher quality plastics, Kelley said.
A couple of serial entrepreneurs are working on that next step.
The Selifonovs -- Sergey and Olga -- are Russian-born chemists who founded Segetis in 2006 and own a minority stake in the company, even though they have no hand in its operations anymore.
Instead, they've been hard at work in Golden Valley on two new polymers to be marketed under separate companies.
One company, called XLTerra, developed a high-grade clear plastic from cellulosic biomass, using materials like corn cobs instead of corn kernels, said Sergey Selifonov, XLTerra's chief technology officer.
The plastic has twice the strength of conventional corn-based plastics called polylactides (PLA for short), he said. It has a long list of possible commercial applications, from durables like Plexiglass and auto parts to semi-durables like a toothbrush handle.
The other company is named Reluceo, which has a degradable superabsorbent polymer that can be used in diapers. Unlike conventional superabsorbent polymers, Reluceo will break down, solving a landfill problem, he said.
Sergey called the challenge to make Reluceo's polymer both superabsorbent and biodegradable "harder than Houdini escaping from that box."
Over the next few weeks, the couple are moving to a lab with more power in Plymouth so they can build a mini-plant that can produce hundreds of kilograms of each material a day. The plant will be large enough to learn how to make the product at industrial scale and to test the new materials in different applications, said CEO Olga Selifonova (the 'a' at the end of her name is the Russian way of denoting gender).
As with Segetis, the Selifonovs said they have gotten financial backing from California-based Khosla Ventures, a big-name venture capital company in renewables.
But it will be several years before either product makes its way to market. The Selifonovs are confident they can do it.
"These are promising and innovative technologies," Olga Selifonova said. "I truly believe they will be commercialized."
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