Blake Teipel can tell you something about the inner workings of just about anything. Today, his company is building the next generation of materials with a predominant focus on plastics. From research on additives like coconut husk powders to 3-D printing, the grad student in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at Texas A&M is working hard to be disruptive. And he's succeeding.
Blake Teipel knows how things work. From cars to cosmetics, he can tell you something about the inner workings of just about anything. Today, his company is building the next generation of materials… with a predominant focus on plastics.
And it’s perhaps no surprise that his interest in this arena all started with that paradigm of plastic toys.
BT: I grew up like a lot of little kids building legos and then once I outgrew my legos I had to figure out something else to tinker with. I just love tinkering on things.
Located in College Station, Texas, Essentium Materials is only a few years old but growing fast. Blake is Chief Technology Officer and a graduate student in Materials Science at Texas A&M.
He takes me back to a lab where his colleague Ryan Vano is firing up a giant extruder. As Ryan puts plastic pellets into a hopper, Blake asks him the million dollar question:
Blake: So Ryan did you play with legos a lot when you were a kid, too?
Ryan: I did and my daughter loves legos so it runs in the family I guess!
Today, Ryan is preparing to test formulations of a plastic filler that would enhance polyethylene.
Through a combination of blending and heating, those plastic pellets will come out completely transformed.
BT: It will come out almost like very hot toothpaste. And then we can pelletize it and injection mold it and get properties. (:09)
Ryan makes it sound simple, but the work Essentium does is highly complex. That “hot toothpaste” is the beginning phase of test after test done at Essentium to see which plastic composites work and which don’t.
In their early days, Essentium’s main line of work involved adding coconut fibers to other polymers to make them stronger and more environmentally sustainable. Coconut shells are a major waste product in coastal areas, and Essentium saw an opportunity to repurpose these shells to make engineering-grade materials.
But beyond the science, Essentium also has a deeply rooted social mission. With their coconut exploits, they partnered with organizations in countries like the Philippines to give opportunities to local people there as a way to get them out of poverty.
BT: Essentium exists sort of nominally to build the next generation of essential materials, and so, materials we see as kind of our vehicle to address some of the broad challenges that are out there in the world. Problems like poverty. Problems like unemployment. Problems like human trafficking. Problems like environmental decline and environmental disease that faces the planet. (:24)
The coconut research put them on the map and got them the attention of companies like Ford. But Blake and his team didn’t just want attention. They wanted to be DISRUPTIVE. In other words… They didn’t just want coconuts. They wanted to shake the entire tree.
They faced several initial challenges. In addition to leadership transitions, they also had to really assess whether they could work strictly with coconut. According to Blake, shipping coconut husks to North America proved expensive, and other waste products were more available and cheaper to access.
BT: There was a lot of competition in north America that was provided simply by virtue of the fact that there are other waste materials here that didn’t work quite as well as coconut in the plastics but they worked well enough to be able to provide a cost benefit and a moderate not a very strong but a moderate environmental benefit to plastics companies in the US that supply automotive.
So Essentium started to diversify. While they still work with coconuts, the team realized that if they really wanted to be “disruptive”, they’d have to look elsewhere.
And one of the places they looked at was 3D printing.
BT: With new technology like 3d printing we can go from a lead time of 6-8 weeks down to 24 hours. And we can do that at a 10x cost save. Anytime you can have a cost save at 10x or a performance improvement of 10x has the opportunity to be disruptive. (:18)
Essentium is now using 3D printing to do groundbreaking prosthetic research to make devices more efficiently and economically. Blake has paired up with Brandon Sweeney, a fellow Materials Science PHD student at Texas A&M. Together, they’re exploring how to improve prosthetics using 3D printing.
If you imagine 3D printing filaments as a yarn like material, Brandon’s research helped him develop a coating for the yarn. This coating helps the 3D print stay intact longer and resist flaking apart over time. Meanwhile, Blake has been working on the strength of the plastic filament itself. Both areas would limit the wear and tear on a prosthesis after long-term use. In other words, Blake’s and Brandon’s combined efforts could shape the future of 3D printing filament technology.
BT: There’s a beautiful synergy that exists now that Brandon’s figured out how to weld filaments together and make the overall printed component strong. Now we can start using stronger filament because my PhD work was focused on making plastic composites stronger. (:14)
While amputations are a big issue here in the U.S. because of vascular diseases and trauma cases, Blake is also hoping his team can use their technology on a global scale to help land mine victims overseas.
BT: There’s a big problem with under reporting statistics that are wildly inaccurate as far as how many amputees there are overseas. The beautiful thing would be that we could launch businesses overseas where somebody with a cell phone camera and a heat gun can open up a prosthetics shop anywhere in the world and all they need is an internet connection. They don’t need anything else. (:14)
Prosthetic devices can cost anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000 dollars… and sometimes more than that. But Essentium could change this number drastically. Using 3D scanning technology on their phone, a person could scan the limb, upload it to the cloud, and then receive a 3D print of the device. Once the person receives the limb, a heat gun can mold plastic sockets in the prosthetic to become an exact fit.
Brandon and Blake’s 3D printing filament technology won them first place in last year’s Raymond Ideas Challenge through the Mays Business School. It also won them a $10,000 prize at the SEC Entrepreneurial Pitch Competition.
Ryan Vano says this is just one small piece of the breakthrough technology Essentium is striving to create.
RV: I think that these high performance prosthetic devices speak to the larger context of Essentium. It’s highlighting a new breakthrough technology and possibility that came about because of the material development that we have been working on. We want to be the thought leaders in all of these material spaces because materials that don’t exist today can enable applications that we have never even thought of before. (:24)
This desire to create materials that don’t even exist today is how Essentium is making the impossible possible.
And while Blake isn’t tinkering with legos anymore, he’s still asking the same question he asked when he was a kid: What can he build next?
BT: I’m just building stuff. I’m just a builder. I’m building a company now. The whole inspiration form this came from how do I build stuff? If you see something on the horizon then go after it and find other people who can go after it with you and build things together. (10)