Bioresin materials science company Ecospan LLC has found a niche in the durable-packaging marketplace, not just by selling its bioresins, but by developing product and packaging solutions.
“Instead of saying, ‘Buy our resin,' we ask you where you would like to use a sustainable material, what you want to achieve from a sustainability aspect and what specifications you want for your product, not for your plastic,” said President Jeff White in a phone interview.
“We are here to help our customers make a final product that works for them,” said White, who is based in the Exton, Pa., small-scale manufacturing and research and development facility that Ecospan added last December.
Millbrae, Calif.-based Ecospan was founded in 2005, but did not launch a commercial product until late 2009. It also has small-scale manufacturing facilities in Long Beach, Calif., and Phoenix. “Next year, we will probably address Europe as a customer market,” White said.
Ecospan has more than a dozen customers, including an Asian consumer-electronics company that is saving an estimated $21 million annually because it switched from a cardboard-based package for a personal electronic device to a bio-based package made from a custom BioFlow resin that Ecospan developed specifically for that firm.
“They wanted to drive sustainability throughout their company specifically in logistics and packaging,” White said. “We changed the game for them by developing a new package and a closed-loop, reverse-logistics recycling solution” that enabled the company to incorporate into its reverse-logistics operations the new bio-based shipping boxes that are used when products are returned or repaired.
The packaging Ecospan developed was more expensive than the one it replaced. But it reduced overall costs because it could be used 20-30 times, said White, compared to the previous package, which often needed to be repaired after three uses.
“That changed the economics dramatically in our favor,” said White, adding that Ecospan shipping containers are shredded, reused and recycled at the end of their useful life.
“We are saving our customers money and bringing sustainability to a whole new level through our closed-loop process,” said White.
He said Ecospan bioresins also are being used to make cell phone covers; components, housings and accessories for electronic devices; DVD trays; and totes and containers for electronic parts. “The totes have anti-static properties and don't scratch the products,” White said.
The company's proprietary resins also are used to make lipstick tubes and eye-shadow cases for the cosmetics industry and ink cartridges, he said.
Critically, White said Ecospan doesn't just have a single bioresin or a single raw material that is the base for its BioFlow resin blends, whose bio-based content varies based on the customer's needs.
“We can use starch-based materials, plant-based materials, biomass materials and even fungus,” he said. “We are agnostic and can optimize formulations for a specific application. We have tried more than 300-400 unique materials and blended thousands of them.
“Our first step is to work in the lab, get an early sample and then formulate a resin for a product,” usually for an injection molding process, said White. “We work with the product-development engineering teams of our customers.”
Ecospan starts by determining the necessary product attributes, for example, strength, impact resistance and heat exposure.
“We start with the end application and match what's required back to the material,” White said.
Ecospan doesn't make all the resins; it subcontracts much of the manufacturing to companies that are close to the companies it supplies. But it maintains tight control over its proprietary formulas and does all the raw material blending for its resins.
In addition, Ecospan has developed partnerships with injection molders globally to integrate with their customers' supply chains to achieve a lower carbon footprint.
“We have intellectual property in both the material and process [so] the process is closely monitored by Ecospan no matter where the product is made,” said a company spokesperson.
For the most part, Ecospan has focused on the durable-goods market. But that is changing, he said.
“This year, we are starting to take on more projects beyond our core and are looking at opportunities in the cosmetics markets and toy markets,” said White. “We have taken on a handful of products in the last few months. But most of them won't materialize until the end of this year or early next year. Our goal is to continue to grow our application range.”
White said that as Ecospan grows, it has no plans, at least at this time, to do large-scale manufacturing of resins or products on its own, and that it plans to continue its local manufacturing approach.
“We don't want to be a bricks-and-mortar company,” said White. “We will use third-parties for [most of our] manufacturing. This significantly reduces transportation costs … and mitigates the risk in volatile fuel prices, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”
Ecospan was one of the four clean-tech companies on the 2012 Red Herring magazine list of Top 100 privately held, innovative companies that was released in June.