5 Examples of Global Innovation in Materials
“Move over Graphene: Next-Gen 2D Materials Could Revolutionize Technology,” was the title of an article last month by Discover which talked about a family of “atomically thin” nanomaterials that will usher in a new era of material innovation. It’s not like graphene needs to move over much. In our recent piece on The Long Road to Graphene Commercialization, we talked about how investors are growing weary of reading about the daily “memorandums of understanding” and want to see some actual commercialization of graphene products at scale. No more niche sporting products please, just give us some real product innovation at scale. Maybe it is about time for graphene to move over and join carbon nanotubes in the “never really achieved proper commercialization” club.
We recently attended Slush Helsinki in Finland, one of the largest tech startup conferences in the world with more than 3,500 startups and 2,000 investors, all looking to commercialize the next big thing. Participating startups applied to showcase their products on stage, and Slush’s jury selected a handful of promising startups from various industries to present to investors. The “Materials and Manufacturing” track featured five startups from around the world showcasing advanced materials innovations that have already achieved some traction on the market. Here they are.
Space Technology in Your Wardrobe
Founded in 2014, Cincinnati, Ohio startup Oros has raised $9 million to develop the warmest jackets in the world. Founder Michael Markesbery learned about NASA’s aerogel technology during his work with the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation. Aerogels are among the lightest solid materials on Earth that are created from a gel mixture of silica and solvents by replacing the liquid found in the gel with gas. They have very small pores in the nanometer range, are lightweight, and are used to insulate space shuttles and Mars rovers. Markesbery was inspired by a mountaineering trip to the Swiss Alps, and started experimenting with technologies to make aerogels flexible and durable enough to use as insulation in apparel.
The resulting composite material, dubbed Solarcore, has minimal thickness and maintains 97% of the aerogel’s insulation abilities. Oros’ team has tested Solarcore against 250 other insulations used in the apparel industry including goose down and different synthetics, and has yet to find something that is warmer. Their signature Orion parka was tested successfully in the mountains of Nepal with only a t-shirt worn underneath. Oros is using its financing, including a grant from the US Department of Defense, to scale its direct-to-consumer business on the internet. The startup’s products are already available on its website with jackets priced between $150 and $500.
Sustainable Lego Housing
Finnish startup Block Solutions has raised an undisclosed amount of funding to develop sustainable and cheap building blocks for houses to be used in emerging and frontier markets. The building blocks are made of wood chips and recycled plastic and their manufacturing process has close to zero carbon footprint. The blocks are simply joined together like Lego pieces using a rubber hammer, and a small house (or a spacious residence if you live in Hong Kong) can be constructed in eight hours at a cost of $6,700. The blocks are created using a honeycomb structure which ensures proper strength and insulation, and can bear the weight of four stories. It is also possible to construct higher buildings by pouring concrete in the gaps, and to add extra layers of insulation in colder climates (although that might defeat the purpose of quick and cheap construction).
The building material has a lifespan of 100 years and houses can be easily dismantled and moved if necessary – a significant benefit in disaster areas. Block Solutions is currently present in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, and the company is looking to scale using a franchise model with local manufacturing and distribution. Local franchises will not only create affordable housing for $21 per square foot, but also add jobs in less developed areas. The blocks are recyclable indefinitely as their quality does not deteriorate in the recycling process.
3D Printed Prosthetics
Founded in 2018, Finnish startup Taika3D has raised $700,000 in funding to develop a computer vision and 3D printing solution for artificial supports and prosthetics for the limbs and spine. The global market for these medical aids (called orthotics and prosthetics) was estimated at $8.15 billion in 2017, fueled by an aging population, an increase in sports-related injuries, and a growth in diabetes-related amputations and bone cancer. Taika3D has created a platform that scans patients’ limbs, then automatically models and prints the item customized to their unique anatomy.
The system takes measurements using an iPad and attached sensors, and translates them into a 3D model to be printed right away or sent to a partner factory, saving 95% of the time it takes to design an orthotic or prosthetic. The startup currently works with 13 factories in designing and manufacturing custom insoles, and is targeting another 800 factories around the world. The team of 12 is looking to expand in the medical field first, then use the technology in retail shoe manufacturing later – something we talked about in our previous article on 3D Printing for Footwear and Podiatry.
Light Activated Implants
Founded in 2018, Swiss startup Lumendo has raised $100,000 to develop technology that builds up dental implants inside the body using an access channel of less than half a millimeter in diameter. The startup, a spin-off from the top two universities of Switzerland, has created these precision fillers to simplify dental surgeries that require an implant. The material solidifies upon contact with light and can be used for dental and orthopedic applications as well as a filler for nerves and blood vessels. The first use case that Lumendo markets is root canal procedures. When the nerve or pulp inside a tooth is damaged, it needs to be removed by drilling to avoid infection, and the resulting open canal filled in.
There are very small side tunnels branching off from the main root canal that traditional fillers can miss which results in a repeated procedure or, in the worst case, loss of the tooth. The startup has worked with 130 dentists to optimize its solution for precision root canal treatment, and 90% of these dentists have signed up with Lumendo following a successful proof of concept. The company has six patents registered and is now looking to raise additional funding.
A Circular Economy In Fashion
Founded in 2012, Swedish startup re:newcell has raised $10.6 million to develop a patented process for recycling cellulose-based textiles, such as cotton and viscose. These fibers form the raw materials for one third of all global clothing demand. Currently, the fashion industry produces 10% of global carbon emissions and is the second-largest consumer of the world’s water supply. While almost 100% of textiles and clothing are hypothetically recyclable, only about 0.1% actually ends up recycled into new textile fiber.
Re:newcell’s proprietary technology takes old garments, shreds them, removes buttons and zips, removes coloring, and turns the rest into a slurry. Non-cellulose contents and contaminants are filtered out and the rest is dried to produce a pure pulp. This pulp is packaged into bales and fed back into the textile production cycle. The startup’s technology does not use or emit chemicals, uses very little water (10 liters for a pair of recycled jeans versus 7,600 liters for a pair of traditional jeans) and has no cost disadvantage compared to traditional textiles. Furthermore, re:newcell textiles are indefinitely recyclable as their quality is not compromised during the process. The company has a functioning pilot plant in Sweden that produces 7,000 tons of pulp every year, and plans to build three larger plants in Asia, Europe, and the US with a joint capacity of 100,000 tons per year. With the sustainable fashion industry growing at a triple-digit rate, re:newcell’s aim to recycle 1 billion garments per year might not be that far away.
The five startups on display couldn’t be more different, but what they all have in common are products with traction. While startups like Oros may not appear to be too groundbreaking on the tin (we don’t know many people complaining about how their jacket isn’t warm enough), the fact they’re using aerogels to provide a superior form of insulation has many applications outside of just $500 jackets for the type of people who spend their holidays climbing mountains in Nepal. Startups like re:newcell and Block Solutions offer a value proposition that is economically viable and gives the ESG types something to feel good about the next time they go and buy a $200 pair of skinny jeans. As for the other two startups – Taiak3D and Lumendo – they’re looking to provide better healthcare, something we can all feel good about.