Monday December 7, 2015 0 comments
BOULDER -- Take one Ph.D in organic chemistry and material science, add a Ph.D in immunology, stir in a Master’s in Business Administration and a Ph.D in chemistry, add a dash of competition (CU Boulder’s New Venture Challenge), and a splash of cash from the National Science Foundation, and – if you’re lucky – the result will be Mallinda, a company that makes “better plastic.”
Chris Kaffer (immunology and MBA) met Philip Taynton (o-chem and material science) when a professor who knew Taynton was looking for someone with backgrounds in science and business suggested they work together to enter Taynton’s doctoral research into the New Venture Competition. They entered the competition as a team.
“It’s a good example of collapsing the campus,” said Kaffer, referring to CU’s emphasis on encouraging students from different departments to communicate and collaborate in order to produce and nurture “creative collisions” that might not otherwise occur (see http://www.innovationews.com/-Creative-collisions-lead-to-new-Aerospace-Ventures-initiative-at-CU-Boulder/).
After they won the competition and a $150,000 Small Business Research Grant from the National Science Foundation, Kaffer (CEO) and Taynton (CTO) moved into lab space at the Fitzsimons Innovation Campus in Aurora (adjacent to CU’s Anschutz Medical Campus and offering easy university access) as Mallinda.
And that third Ph.D? Wei Zang, an associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry at CU is Mallinda’s third co-founder; however, he works with the company only as a science advisor.
Their website says the company’s name is “a Mashup of ‘malleable’ and ‘industry’,” which makes sense, since what they’re doing is creating “a paradigm shift in polymer science.” A little abstruse? How about: “a new class of malleable polymers”? Still a bit uber-technical? Try: developing plastics for customizable athletic gear that can be softened in plain old boiling water, molded directly on an athlete’s body, harden in 30 seconds, and can then be remolded, repaired, and reused over and over.
Trade-marked Pliashell is “intrinsically-recyclable hard (thermoset) plastic” for creating everything from customizable athletic gear to airplane parts. Any industry that needs to efficiently manufacture fully-recyclable advanced composites is on their potential client list, but Mallinda has started with college and professional athletes for whom, according to Kaffer, “customizable athletic gear is the Holy Grail.”
“Athletes are really unsatisfied with the historical paradigm of pre-stamped sizes and shapes” in which their gear comes now, says Kaffer. He said even the really expensive stuff is made “with no regard for individual body sizes.” It also tends to be “bulky, which inhibits an athlete’s ability to perform at their peak.”
It doesn’t take an advanced degree to know that truly custom athletic gear is very expensive. Kaffer gave orthotics as a simple analogy, noting that not only does a single pair cost at least $200 (and usually closer to $400 or more) but it requires a trip to the provider for measurements, a wait of several weeks, another trip to the provider for fitting, and even then, they tend to be “cumbersome” and “imperfect.”
And you don’t have to be a CU Buffalo to know that Kaffer’s right when he says “more comfortable gear equals a competitive advantage,” or that “combining comfort with quick customization in a lightweight product” is going to increase that advantage.
According to Kaffer, gear made from Pliashell is molded directly on the person, by the person, and can be remolded around an injury, swelling, or muscle that has atrophied from disuse due to injury or between seasons. The current industry standard requires very high heat and lots of pressure to chemically fuse two sheets of plastic into one over a period of between 30 minutes and 14 hours.
And once traditionally molded plastic is cured (hardened), that’s it. You can’t do anything else with it.
Even the materials that come closest to what Mallinda is doing, those designed for athletes for example, don’t do what Pliashell does. Kaffer mentions a competitor whose products are “good,” but that require a 30-minute cure, during which time they must be held still on the athlete, and after which they cannot be reshaped.
Compare that to Pliashell, which, according to Kaffer, has a 30-second cure time and can be remolded as many times as necessary using “moderate heat” (boiling water, an iron, a microwave).
Well, you can only microwave the version that’s entirely polymer. The one embedded with carbon fibers can’t go in the microwave, for obvious reasons. But it can be heated to pliability with boiling water or a household iron.
That’s where the value in the fact that both Mallinda’s polymer-only and their carbon fiber reinforced composites are both completely recyclable becomes really apparent. According to Mallinda’s website, they have “developed a completely closed loop system for the recovery of both polymer and carbon fiber from CFRC end-of-life products and scrap materials. Our patent-pending recycling process takes advantage of the reversible chemistry of Pliashell material, and generates no excess waste, and uses almost no energy. Both the recovered carbon fiber and the recovered Pliashell resin can be reused to make fresh composite materials. No longer will CFRCs end up in landfills.”
In breaking that down, Kaffer explains that their polymer-only products are simply ground into powder and heated under pressure to make new film, a method that encourages the use of scrap from trimmed pieces as well as old or discarded ones in the development of new films.
The recycling of CFRCs is more complex, and only about six months old. Part of the problem that needed solving is that the plastic serves as a kind of glue in the creation of the thermoset composite and, according to Kaffer, “heretofore people have been unable to separate the disparate parts of composites in an energy-efficient and environmentally-acceptable manner.” With Mallinda’s approach, the composite is placed into a solution which depolymerizes (melts away) the plastic so both it and the carbon fiber can be reused to make new films or composites.
According to Kaffer, the ability to reuse carbon fiber from CFRCs is truly revolutionary. In the recycling method, CFRCs are chopped into tiny pieces, rendering the carbon fiber no longer a structurally functional fiber and thus, relatively useless. Mallinda’s new, patent-pending separation process “allows us to recover the full length of woven carbon fibers, maintaining their mechanical integrity” and enabling them to be reused again and again.
Participating in the New Venture Challenge not only brought Taynton, 29, from Pasadena, CA, and Kaffer, 40, from Wheat Ridge, together, it also connected them to Dean Stull, who was one of the judges. After spending a day listening to hundreds of eager pitches, Stull said, “these guys stuck with me. They had an interesting technology – something substantially different from anything anyone else was doing.”
A self-proclaimed serial entrepreneur, Stull has worked with many fledgling companies and said that Taynton and Kaffer have “a unique relationship in their partnership; a chemistry that can make a big difference long-term. They respect each other and stick together to do the right thing for the partnership.” They also “don’t think they know everything.” He said, they listen to advice, make changes, and have the ability to decide when to take a particular piece of advice and when to proceed in a different direction.
In July, Mallinda received a resume from Stull, which resulted in the addition of their first employee. Denis Kissounko, 42, who was born and raised in Moscow, Russia, came to them from Composites Technology Development in Lafayette.
Right now “a lot of people believe in the technology,” said Stull. “It’s very cool. The next step is to commercialize.” And it can take a long time to get a new material off the ground, and even longer to get it accepted into industries such as automobiles and airplanes, so, according to Stull, starting off with shin guards for soccer players is a great idea. It allows Mallinda to begin to make a name for itself, start to bring in some revenue, and then begin the long process of expanding into other industries. “Look at what happened with polyethylene,” he said. While it’s ubiquitous today, it was initially developed for the aerospace industry but “the first knock-your-socks-off application was ski boots.” From there, it spread until it’s used in almost every industry you can think of.
Perhaps that old guy from The Graduate is going to be right again. The future’s in plastics; Mallinda’s intrinsically-recyclable, low-temperature malleable, quick-setting, thermoset plastics with embedded carbon fibers to be exact.