Michigan State’s InPore Hopes to Churn Out Better Wind Turbines Through Chemistry

6/15/10

Michigan State University spinout InPore Technologies makes a particle that, when mixed with other materials, makes plastic stronger, lighter, cheaper, and more flame-retardant. Yeah. I know. Doesn’t sound all that sexy. It really is, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

First, the reason the East Lansing, MI-based company recently earned a $100,000 paycheck from the Great Lakes Entrepreneur’s Quest business plan competition is not only because it has great technology to sell, but because it has people who know how to clearly describe, in the words of CEO Gerry Roston, “the story.”

The reviewers for the competition who singled InPore out of the pack said the company knew what it was doing and why they were doing it. In turn, what attracted Roston to the company about 18 months ago was its founding scientist, MSU chemistry professor Thomas Pinnavaia.

“This is the single most critical thing for any startup,” Roston says. “It’s not the technology, it’s not the money, it’s the people.”

Nothing against academics in general, Roston says, but, for a professor, Pinnavaia “is an extremely personable, extremely approachable person. He’s passionate about what he does, he’s open to learning from others, he wants to learn from others, he wants to make this happen. And that enthusiasm is the other thing which really drew me to the business.”

So, according to Roston, who has made a career out of mentoring early-stage companies, the key to tech startup success is to have a plan and people you can believe in. Then, of course, there’s the technology itself. It’s a small thing, really—on the nanoscale, actually. But, warns Roston, don’t call InPore a nanotechnology company. That “nano” prefix is the “kiss of death” in the marketplace these days, he says.

The company’s proprietary particle goes by the brand name Silapore. Most of the plastics you interact with everyday—from your car to the phone or computer you’re reading this story on—contain fillers that do different jobs. They make the product stiffer or add color, for example. But the fillers, themselves, can also make the plastics weaker. Silapore particles, according to InPore, have such a unique morphology—or, arrangement, texture, or topography—that it makes products stiffer, stronger, lighter, and even flame-retardant and scratch-resistant.

The scratch-resistance and lighter weight make the material attractive to the automotive industry. But the nearer term application that InPore is going for is in the wind turbine market, where the demand for blades is about twice what the industry is currently capable of delivering, according to Roston. Put the right kinds of chemicals on InPore’s particles and epoxy sets faster, producing stronger wind turbine blades in half the amount of time required by competitors’ processes, he says.

And, as the name Silapore implies, it’s made of silica—essentially, sand, so it’s nontoxic. That comes in handy as a fire retardant. A lot of plastics, from carpet to wire and cable, are required to have fire retardants built into them. Unfortunately, many fire retardants are chemicals that give off toxic gases when they burn. Silipore is “as inert as you can get,” Roston says.

The company is “halfway out the door of the lab,” he says, with a pilot-scale manufacturing facility in Lansing, MI, producing batches of 2 to 3 kilograms at a time. That, of course, will need to be scaled up. You need 140 kilograms of the stuff for a single wind turbine blade. Scaleup, as Roston points out, is often where promising ideas get killed, but he is confident that InPore will meet the test.

What it needs now, of course, is more money to make that happen. Aside from this recent $100,000 from the Great Lakes Entrepreneur’s Quest, InPore received a $500,000 Small Business Innovation Research grant from the National Science Foundation in 2008 and has also been awarded $40,000 from the Michigan Emerging Technology Fund. The company plans to hit up the Michigan Pre-Seed Capital fund for another $150,000 and is going back to the NSF for another $250,000. In addition, look for a round of angel funding for InPore in the next week or so, Roston says.

Roston has been helping to get companies off the ground for a while now. He has a small consulting business called Pair of Docs Consulting (He and his partner both have Ph.D.’s. Get it?) and works almost exclusively with early-stage, technology-focused companies. This is Roston’s third year as planning chair for the Annual Collaboration for Entrepreneurship, a Great-Lakes-wide event back in January, and he has worked as a mentor with Ann Arbor SPARK and other business organizations.

“Basically, if it has something to do with entrepreneurship and it’s in Southeast Michigan, I’m involved in it somehow because that’s what I like doing,” Roston says.

So, he should know what he’s talking about when he says the funding atmosphere is improving in Michigan, with more, and better-organized, angel groups stepping up. Does he wish he lived in Silicon Valley? Well, sometimes, but for what InPore is trying to do in the chemical arena, there is “more talent in this state … than you’ll find elsewhere,” given the proximity to Midland, MI-based Dow Chemical.

One other thing that makes InPore stand out a bit is the fact that it is an MSU, and not a University of Michigan, spinout. Ann Arbor, he says, has been a hub of entrepreneurship in the state for two or three decades now because the region has a large cadre of people who serve as mentors and coaches in early-stage businesses. But Detroit, through TechTown, and Grand Rapids, through the Momentum program, are beginning to make that model work elsewhere in the state.

As for MSU, its tech transfer office is now co-located with the East Lansing Technology Innovation Center. That proximity, Roston says, will be helpful. “It looks like things are trending in the direction where they will be spinning out out more technologies with time,” Roston says.

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