On the Cutting Edge
Innovative thinking and the willingness to try something new are leading to farm production and utilization that are a long way from a bushel of apples!
Doesn’t it seem like everything we buy is encased in a lot of packaging? When we consider that all those Styrofoam peanuts and all dense packaging material are going to end up in a landfill where they will last virtually forever, it seems not only wasteful but also detrimental to the environment we all share. In addition, the materials and manufacture of synthetic packaging are often harmful to the environment. KTM Industries has come up with an answer.
According to Tim Colonnese, president and CEO, “We are one of the oldest bio-based materials companies in the country, celebrating our 15th anniversary this June.”
Colonnese started the company with four Michigan State University professors in 1997. He says, “The whole idea was to start a company that made materials from renewable resources. I had been based in Tokyo as part of Meridian Industries, which is headquartered in Okemos and sells research instrumentation in the life sciences. It’s a company that works with technology developed at MSU, and that’s how I connected with professors from the university.
“Two of the professors called and told me they had an idea for a new product made of bio-materials. At the time, 1997, the Kyoto Protocols were being ratified, climate change was in the news, and there was an understanding that we needed to decrease our dependence on fossil fuels. I thought it was a great time to create a green-based company.
The technology behind the product was originally developed by Warner-Lambert, who sold the technology to National Starch and Chemical Company. KTM developed a relationship with National Starch and gained access to the starch foam technology. According to Colonnese, “They were using the basic technology for the same purposes, but it wasn’t working well and wasn’t being accepted in the marketplace because it was not well developed. It was very expensive and green was not being emphasized. They quit selling the product around ’97/’98. We signed agreements with them to get our company up and going.
“In order to generate revenue, we came up with a new product called Magic Nuudles. We’ve been selling this for 12 years. Since this was a completely new product, we had to not only create the product but also create the market. We’ve sold over $10 million of this product.”
The product is sold to schools and craft stores like Hobby Lobby and Jo-Ann Fabrics and is also sold in other stores. They have been rigorously tested to meet the most stringent safety standards. Surprisingly, China has proved to be a robust market. You can access more information about the product at www.magicnuudles.com. They are manufactured at the Lansing facility.
Colonnese emphasizes, “We did not start out intending to make toys; this was a way to finance our core business, but the Magic Nuudles have been a big success.”
The same material that goes into Magic Nuudles makes up the other products offered by KTM. By 2002, they had raised adequate funds and developed the technology to the point where they could begin to produce Green Cell biodegradable engineered foam for cushioning and insulation applications. Made from granulated cornstarch, this packaging material not only offers maximum safety for products being packaged but also is truly biodegradable. Even the glue they use is biodegradable.
According to Colonnese, “The product we create for packaging material is ag-based and is renewable and sustainable. Other forms of packaging are fossil fuel based, either made from oil or natural gas. Some are recyclable but most of it goes into a landfill. Even material that can be recycled has to be picked up—the consumer pays for that. The trucks that pick it up are fueled by gasoline. It has to be taken to a collection facility where it is sorted, and then it has to be trucked to another facility.
“The material we use is completely biodegradable. You can throw it in your back yard or on your compost pile, or you can put it in your sink and dissolve it in water. No truck, no sorting, no landfill.”
Packaging made of Green Cell foam has better cushioning qualities and its insulating properties are excellent. The sheets of Green Cell foam are sent to fabricating facilities to customize and then go on to the end user. Many of those facilities are in Michigan.
Colonnese says, “We also made Green Cell insulated shipping coolers, designed to protect frozen and perishable products during shipping. Pharmaceutical companies are finding this product particularly useful.”
The company has received several commendations, including the Responsible Packaging Award from the Independent National Food Retailers Association in 2010. In 2011, the Michigan Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth honored KTM with a Clean Energy Advanced Manufacturing Green Chemistry Program award.
In 2009, Mimi Hall, now CEO of Phenometrics, accompanied her son to Washington State University where he would begin a doctorate program in molecular plant biology under Dr. David Kramer. While there, she met Dr. Kramer, a well-respected biophysicist internationally recognized for his work on photosynthesis.
According to Hall, “During a casual conversation with David Kramer, he described the work he had been doing and told us that he had created technology that was so popular that he was creating specialized instruments for scientists throughout the world. His invention was particularly useful in research and development on plant growth productivity.
“I said to Dr. Kramer, ‘It sounds to me like you ought to be commercializing this technology, and as an entrepreneur, I would love to start a biotech company to sell it someday.’ Eight months later, I got the call. I flew up to WSU [Washington State University] and met this wonderful group of talented inventors/scientists who were part of the Kramer lab. David [Kramer] told me, ‘I have a couple of new inventions that are critical to accelerating algae biofuel research that we could bring to the company.’
“Not too long after we decided to launch this business, David accepted an offer as a Hannah Distinguished Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from Michigan State University and brought with him the whole team, along with an entire lab and multiple grants for development.”
It was discovered 15 years ago that microalgae could be used to create oil. With little refining, the extract from these microalgae can be used to make jet fuel, biodiesel and gasoline. As Hall says, “It is the answer to our dependence on fossil fuel and the need for renewal energy alternatives.
“These microalgae can grow naturally in five to 10 days, so unlike corn ethanol that takes an entire season as well as significant amounts of energy, you can, in a very short time, create oil. However, scaling it up to production is the issue. The algae biofuel industry is still in the research phase of identifying the optimal species of algae and the optimal conditions to make biofuel. There are tens of thousands of strains of algae as well as a myriad of external conditions where algae grow. Scientists are working to discover algae that most effectively grow biofuel in various environments. Throughout the world, biofuel companies, consortiums and research organizations have constructed experimental pilot program ponds for their research and development to test new algae strains. Unfortunately, many of the strains discovered in the lab fail in these outdoor ponds. The conditions in the outdoor ponds are not the same as in the lab, so it is difficult to predict how algae will grow in the real cultivation ponds when they scale up for oil production.”
So what Kramer has developed is a machine that can simulate various conditions in order to ascertain what the best environment is for the optimal growth and what would be the most prolific microalgae. This machine is called the Phenometric Environmental Photo Bioreactor (ePBR) and can help scientists not only in the biofuel industry but also in the algae food and agriculture industry, as well as for waste management applications. An overview of the use of algae for biofuel and of the ePBR can be accessed at youtube.com/watch?v=B9E0LNR4AIw
The ePBRs are being assembled at the Technology Innovation Center in East Lansing which also houses the offices of Phenometrics. Hall points out that virtually all of the components are Michigan-made. The ePBR is not a production tool but rather a scientific instrument to aid in the development of a product. The patent is held by MSU, and Phenometrics holds an exclusive license to produce the ePBR.
“Companies that have these ponds are finding that without the ePBR, their experimentation can cost literally millions of dollars and take months or years,” Hall says. “With the ePBR, they can do R & D [research and development] in the lab, replicating the outside environment, and they can do it quickly and cost effectively.”
The Department of Energy has given close to half a billion dollars in research money for the algae biofuel industry. They have given $75 million to the National Alliance for the Advance of Biofuel and Biofuel Products (NAABB), a consortium of universities, biofuel companies, national labs and research organizations.
Hall says, “About a year and a half ago, Dr. Kramer gave a presentation at a NAABB conference featuring the ePBR prototype. On the spot, attendees started asking to purchase ePBRs. The NAABB gave the Kramer lab, located in the plant research lab at MSU, funds to develop the ePBR. We are now selling to labs, universities, DOE facilities and companies worldwide. In the future we plan to sell to scientists who are researching algae for uses like animal feed, wastewater treatment and human consumption.”
Hall met with the MEDC and LEAP, Inc. and says, “I was welcomed to the community and found everyone to be open and enthusiastic. They expressed a desire to invest in the future. And biotech and alternative energy is the future.”
Phenometrics was recently awarded $3,000 for second place in the Great Lakes Entrepreneur’s Quest.