Innovation Spotlight

Bio-based Plastics

A research partnership has uncovered new uses for soy, sprouting a startup in Marysville.

By
From the August 2013 issue of Columbus CEO
  • Photo by Ryan M.L. Young
    Keith Masavage
  • Photo by Ryan M.L. Young

Farmers suspected years ago that one of Ohio’s most abundant crops had hidden potential.

So the Ohio Soybean Council enlisted the help of Battelle’s scientists to study new uses for its namesake plant.The research eventually led to an innovative formula that combines soybean meal and plastics, creating a soy-based polymer. The technology offered an eco-friendly alternative to petroleum-based plastics.

“In the past, they looked a lot at the oil of the soybean, but this project was focused on using the soybean meal,” says Barry McGraw, a program manager at Battelle. “We explored multiple applications, but the one that showed promise was incorporating it into a polymer and, specifically, a polypropylene.” 

Battelle’s discovery has gone from the lab to the marketplace through Biobent Polymers, a startup company located in Columbus. Biobent was initially formed in 2010 as a division of plastics manufacturer Univenture Inc.based in Marysville, and then spun off on its own in July 2012.

Consumer demand for eco-friendly products has driven manufacturers to explore alternative materials, says Keith Masavage, Biobent’s founder, president and CEO.“This is where Biobent has demonstrated its advantage,” he says. “Our product is the first bioplastic capable of delivering performance on par with pure petroleum-based plastics while offering competitive prices—not premiums for being green.”

Biobent’s soy-based polymer can replace up to 40 percent of the petroleum used in plastics, Masavage says.

To date, Masavage says Biobent has had inquiries from more than 150 companies. He turned down all but about 20, wanting to ensure he could meet production demands. Products have include an all-terrain vehicle fender for Honda Motorsports, a fertilizer spreader measuring tray for The Andersons, injection-molded parts for Cardinal Health and CD cases and binders for Univenture.

During the next 12 to 18 months, Masavage plans to raise funds to bring production in-house and develop sublicensing agreements with compounders offer private-label versions of Biobent’s products.“We anticipate just amazing growth,” Masavage says.

The self-described serial entrepreneur has spent much of his career working in product marketing and management, yet had a strong interest in technology.“I’m a total tech-head,” he says. “I love technology and don’t care what field it’s in. … The harder the better.”

Soy-based plastics are part of a national industry that’s still emerging, but Ohio farmers and the state’s economy stand to benefit, says McGraw.

“I think Keith is doing a really good job in pushing it forward,” McGraw says. “I think it’s just a matter of meeting the needs of the commercial folks that would buy this material, and also there’s a learning curve with companies that have always been using petroleum-based materials.”

Efforts such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s BioPreferred Program encourage manufacturers—as well as consumers—to use bio-based products.

“There’s been a movement to make a more environmentally friendly product,” says Bob Haselwood, a soybean farmer from Berryton, Kan., who serves as a director on the United Soybean Board.

The national board has long funded research to find new uses for soy, Haselwood says. The plant is used to make a growing list of industrial products, from paint and adhesives to printing ink and plastics.“Each one of these little products adds up to the consumption of soybeans,” says.

Biobent maintains a partnership with Battelle and has received several rounds of funding from both the United Soybean Board and the Ohio Soybean Council. The ouncil jointly received an R&D 100 Award with Battelle and Univenture in 2009 for the soy-based polymer now licensed to Biobent. TechColumbus selected Biobent as a semi-finalist for its 2012 Green Innovation Award.

Dana Wilson is a freelance writer.