Entrepreneur Alchemy

How the University of Alabama is bridging the gap between bright insights and commercial mass production. Two research initiatives have evolved to promising thresholds.

Leadership at 525 Solutions, from left, Julia Shamshina, CEO Gabriela Gurau and President/Founder Robin Rogers.  Photo by Joe De Sciose

Universities, with resources of raw talent and costly high-tech equipment, are the ideal venue to incubate ideas. At the University of Alabama’s AIME (Alabama Innovation and Mentoring of Entrepreneurs) Center, students and professors can take their inventions a step further by exploring the opportunity to move their intellectual property to the marketplace. And UA has the success stories to prove the formula works.

No matter the sector for a prototype, AIME helps inventors make the transition to entrepreneurship. First, it provides access to work space and to high-tech, high-cost equipment. Second, it assists with obtaining grants to research scalable feasibility.

Dan Daly, executive director of the program, came to the university from a background in industry, where he knew the processes for evaluating steps for the intellectual process for patents.

The National Science Foundation I-Corps Site became part of the program in 2015 to foster entrepreneurship that will lead to the commercialization of technology. The methodology pivoted to helping with customer discovery. When the patent is disclosed, the program helps make sure a customer base exists for the invention, providing infrastructure, advice, resources, networking opportunities and training.

“The I-Corps process answers the question for us by going out and talking to potential customers and getting good feedback from the customers,” Daly says. “Of the teams we teach, 70 percent are student ideas. What we really try to focus on is more of the higher technical and intellectual properties of the University of Alabama.”

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Daly says finding the right idea or the next great thing is only the beginning. It’s having the business acumen to make a company a success that is difficult, and the University of Alabama program closes the gap between germinating the idea seed and taking it to mass production. UA is also teaching other universities how to implement similar programs.

“It’s exciting to see the potential,” Daly says. “One thing that is really encouraging is when students finally get the concept, to see the enthusiasm in them escalate. You can see the potential and learn the skills to take an idea and move it into commerce. We’re seeing more and more success stories.”

Potential Disruptor for $654-Billion Plastics Industry

The University’s AIME program’s full methodology is embodied in 525 Solutions, an entity that began in the incubator’s early days and has undergone a sea change with its growth and spin off of Mari Signum, an independent Virginia-based company taking this technological breakthrough and its multiple applications to real-world use.

President, owner and founder of 525 Solutions Inc., Robin D. Rogers has been a faculty member at the University of Alabama since 1982. From his work in ionic liquids, Rogers became fascinated with green industry and the concept of sustainability. The name 525 Solutions was derived from the 525-nanometer wavelength for green light.

In 2004, Rogers, along with a graduate student and other partners, came up with 525 Solutions to take results beyond what had been done in the academic lab to the market.

As the project grew, developing bio-renewable sorbents from shrimp shells for the extraction of uranium from seawater, so too did its potential to diversify. 525 Solutions received a $1.6 million award (2014-2017) to continue its work, and formed a joint venture, Mari Signum Limited (MSL), with Global Blue Technologies, a zero-waste shrimp farm. MSL raised $25 million and built the first chitin production facility in North America, based on a technology developed by Rogers.

Gabriela Gurau, now CEO and co-owner of 525 Solutions, and Julia Shamshina, chief technology officer of Mari Signum Limited, were both post-doctoral students of Rogers. AIME “not only generates technologies and companies but generates entrepreneurs — people able to take this forward. Julia and Gabby are both responsible for doing the work on the scale-up of chitin to the 1.5 million phase,” says Rogers. “That was the origin of 525, and chitin is the latest iteration of the concept — how to get technology from a university setting to a corporate setting.”

In the early days of AIME, Rogers helped recruit Dan Daly to mentor faculty and entrepreneurs starting a company.

“If you’re a chemist or engineer, you’ve never had training (in business),” Rogers says. “The goal behind AIME was to facilitate prototyping and facilitate teaching what people need to know to start a company. We wanted people to be able to learn to write a research plan, in addition to working on research.”

Rogers says that access to university resources was critical in 525 Solutions’ accomplishments, becoming a poster child for the AIME program.

“The more money you get, the more you can do,” Rogers says. “With the first SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research), we were able to do the chemistry. With Phase II, we were able to scale up the engineering work. That’s how 525 evolved. Without the AIME facilities, we would never have been able to afford it.”

Shamshina says there were important steps along the way: “While at 525, seeking for funding to scale up chitin production, we turned our attention to the USDOE Nuclear Energy program, aimed at the extraction of uranium from seawater. While we focused on delivery of product to government-designated mining companies, we at the same time proposed leveraging the USDOE resources to generate a sustainable business around chitin products. (There) was no existing industry base for extraction of uranium from seawater, and the entry decision thus revolved more about how to build a successful business around this opportunity.

“The ultimate goal of this project was collecting the industrial process parameters, conducting reliable economic estimates, and, ultimately, a generation of data for the full-scale operating plant design. This project resulted in a fully engineered system, development of key engineering data and diagrams, as well as an assessment of the equipment needed in a full-scale operating plant.”

Mari Signum Mid-Atlantic was formed as a chitin materials production company. The ultimate goal of Mari Signum Mid-Atlantic is to become a sustainable source of high-quality chitin, as well as chitin-based products developed in-house.

“Mari Signum utilizes a proprietary extraction process to produce premium-quality chitin and chitin derivatives, which have the potential to impact the world in numerous, beneficial ways,” Shamshina says.

“We are continuing to innovate new chitin-based products — for instance, textiles and drug delivery,” Rogers says. “The other half of what we are doing is herbicide, cellulose-based textiles, and we are trying to do pharmaceuticals. 525 is where we incubate our ideas to bring them to commercialization.”

The 525 team has the products, including bandages used by the military and with the capacity to heal diabetic wounds, but it’s a matter of waiting for the finances to move projects forward, including producing a sustainable alternative to plastics — a project that would require a tremendous influx of dollars. It’s something Rogers hopes to see in his lifetime.

“You never know when the right confluence of investment and government interest will come together,” Rogers says. “Using our technology, we can use polymers that come from nature to replace virtually any plastic device known. The problem is no one knows how to do it yet.”

The name Mari Signum comes from the Latin, “sign of the sea,” or, Rogers says, “miracle from the ocean.” The true miracle will be Rogers’ dream of seeing alternatives to plastics, an expensive challenge in the face of a $654 billion plastics industry.

“We’ve built a plant based upon this technology, and we’re building a research company that should be a sustainable company from the University of Alabama,” says Rogers. “This is technology invented at the University of Alabama, developed by 525, an incubated company at the University of Alabama, and now graduated into a joint venture.”

Gurau says the company founded in 2004 went to the next step in commercialization with technology developed in 2010. Phase 1 and Phase 2 of the chitin extraction were smaller scale research taking the invention from the laboratory on the scale of 1 milliliter to the two-liter scale.

“We have all the engineering data necessary to scale this technology further to at least the 500-liter scale,” Gurau says.

“There are no other chitin products in North America,” she says. “We are using a solvent, ionic solution, table salt in a liquid form. It’s something you can compare to vinegar. That tells people it’s not a harsh chemical. It’s something you find in everybody’s kitchen.”

The solvent dissolves chitin from the shrimp shell, and after the extraction, it can be further manipulated. “You can modify the surface with chemicals that act like a magnet to attract uranium,” Gurau says. “It will take some time for the technology to get to a commercial level.

“Chitin can be used in other metal extractions. Water purification for us is very important because it has medical applications. We can show that we can make composite fiber using chitin and alginate and make bandages to cure diabetic ulcers.”

Chitin has antimicrobial properties to keep a wound clean while forming a seal.

“Chitin has many applications from low end to high end and biomedical applications considered to be high end, very expensive,” Gurau says. “If you look at medical-grade chitin, you would pay up to $50,000 per kilogram.”

Gurau says chitin imported from Asia uses harsh chemicals, while the University of Alabama alternative does not. The chitin can be used in medications and cosmetics.

“There are a myriad of applications,” Gurau says.

The industrial applications proposed for chitin are overwhelming. Chitin is used in animal feed as a dietary supplement to promote animal growth, improve adsorption of nutrients and inhibit the effect of harmful microorganisms, and as an ideal material for use in agriculture as a fertilizer, fungicide and pesticide, as an agent to improve seed quality, and as a plant growth stimulator.

The absence of an environmentally sound chitin extraction technology that produces consistent quality product was holding back the whole chitin industry, but now these University of Alabama professionals have opened new vistas for the technology.

“Mari Signum’s ability to produce not only chitin itself, but also products from chitin gives us a competitive advantage to diversify the range of our products and enter several profitable specialized markets,” Shamshina says.

Revolutionary Catalyst for Smokestack Industries

ThruPore Technologies has been one of the super success stories to emerge from the chemistry department at the University of Alabama. The company, with its tag line of “make more, use less,” illustrates how the program should and did work for Franchessa Sayler, Ph.D., president & CEO, and her partner, Professor Martin Bakker.

Sayler was a graduate student when ThruPore Technologies began developing commercial applications for a structured carbon catalyst support. The technology uses highly porous synthetic carbon pellets, combined with precious metals, to create faster reactions in the refinery processes. The more efficient process creates less waste and uses fewer precious metals and has the potential to revolutionize industry by reducing the refiner’s carbon footprint, while also significantly reducing the cost of the process.

Sayler was looking at the technology for a completely different application when she realized it would be effective for catalyst support.

“This particular catalyst is a carbon-supported catalyst,” Sayler explains. “We make it porous so we can put the metal throughout so it sparks. We’re able to use as little as 1/6 of the precious metal. It’s cleaner and weighs a lot less. It also works longer. We have been able to demonstrate sometimes it works as long as four times longer.”

The carbon pellets are used in the production of chemicals and have the potential for automotive applications and cleaner-burning fuel.

In the lab at ThruPore, researchers Trupti Kotbagi (left) and Endre Mihaly. Photo by Joe De Sciose

Sayler’s involvement began when a staff scientist at the university said he was having difficulties developing a catalyst. He asked her, because of her material science background, to take a look at the process. She immediately identified the need for more porous structures.

“I think a lot of scientists find that when they see a solution to a difficult problem, they wonder why no one else thought of that,” Sayler says. “But putting an idea into practice is harder than it looks.”

When the idea went to the AIME program, it was an immediate hit, leading to National Science Foundation Small Business Innovation Research grants, as well as two smaller grants for commercialization exploration. The research funding for the development totaled $1.2 million from 2014 through 2017.

“They said it was great, and we got to be a cohort of the I-Corps program,” says Sayler.

ThruPore, co-founded with Martin Bakker, found a market for the product and licensed the patent for it, which was owned by the University of Alabama.

“I took complete leadership of the company, and it has been exciting,” Sayler says. “We had one employee at the time, and now we have five. I moved the company headquarters to Delaware to run the business side of things in an area with a lot of chemical industry, but we still have the manufacturing and R&D in Tuscaloosa.”

With her training in chemistry, Sayler never anticipated she would be a business owner.

“I wanted to go into product development, so I’m still doing pretty much the same thing,” she says. “I’m just not in the lab as much anymore.”

The development actually involves two patents, both owned by the university — one for putting the catalyst onto a porous carbon and the other for being able to scale the porous materials, making massive quantities of material.

“We took the material from the lab, less than a pound at a time, and now through a partnership with Inventure Renewables, a company that grew out of University of Alabama, ThruPore can make 100 tons a year,” Sayler says.

Partnering with Inventure Renewables was key to scaling up the manufacturing process, but the work of the university was the true catalyst for success. It’s not hand-holding but more a sturdy clasp and boost through AIME that gives potential businesses the incentive and know-how they need to develop ideas and launch companies.

“We would absolutely not have been able to get off the ground without university support,” Sayler says. “The reason we still have labs and manufacturing in Alabama is because of the support system they have created. The people at University of Alabama and in Tuscaloosa have been phenomenal. The university has so many things to access that we need scientifically. You don’t have to buy them. You can just rent time on them.”

The idea seemed counterintuitive at first — a porous structure roughly the size of a pencil eraser would not seem to have the crush strength of a denser material — particularly when the pellets needed to be stacked for the process. But the essence of science is summed up as let’s find out.

“You would think when you packed them in, the crush strength would not be high, and that might have stopped us from pursuing it industrially,” Sayler says. “If you don’t make the material, you don’t know the answer to the question. Once we made it in bulk quantities, we learned the crush strength was actually higher. If you don’t pursue an idea, you’ll never know.”

ThruPore’s big break came through an I-Corps grant program in 2014. A Phase II grant, totaling $750,000, allowed the company to scale up the technology with a larger amount of catalyst for customers.

“That’s where the difficulty was — scalability, proving it could be applied at the scale of a real smokestack industry,” Sayler says.

“Once we proved that, we went to private investment,” Sayler says. “We just closed on a total of $856,500. We also have applied for another grant to match that funding, for another $250,000 from a phase IB supplement grant.”

Sayler projects exponential growth for the company in the next five years, with the pellets shipping direct to customers from Tuscaloosa.

“It feels like we’re sitting on the next big thing,” she says. “Within three years, we’re achieving large scale goals production-wise, and from there, we want to continue duplicating what we’ve accomplished.”

Cara Clark and Joe De Sciose are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Birmingham.

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