FibeRio Spins a Future of Nanofibers
FibeRio Technology’s nanofiber-producing machinery is drawing international manufacturers and R&D companies to Sharyland Business Park. The attraction is FibeRio’s disruptive technology: the capability of producing nanofibers quickly, cheaply and with less material.
FibeRio CEO Ellery Buchanan, Chief Technology Officer Dr. Karen Lozano, and UTPA President Dr. Robert Nelsen welcomed guests to FibeRio’s celebration of the research-to-commercialization success of nanofiber Force Spinning. (VBR)
Microscopic nanofibers (1,000 bundled nanofibers are as thick as a human hair) are capable of adding tensile strength, conductive and insulative capacity, corrosion resistance, water impermeability, bacterial barriers or thermal protection to a product, depending on what material is used to make the nanofiber.
Until FibeRio’s technology breakthrough, the procedures for creating nanofibers –from nylon, polymers, ceramics, metals, etc. – have been prohibitively expensive, limiting their use. The company’s Cyclone
ForceSpinning™ Systems uses centrifugal force to spin out the gossamer thin layers which can be sandwiched into an incredibly wide range of products from industrial and medical filters, baby diapers and ballistics to electrical capacitors.
In operation, the Cyclone machinery appears to be spinning out wisps of white cotton-candy, but the wisps are, in fact, a mat of nanofibers.
The recent sale of FibeRio’s first industrial nanofiber production machine, along with several R&D models, represents a remarkable research-to-commercialization path, the first of its kind by the University of Texas Pan Am. Dr. Karen Lozano, an endowed professor of Mechanical Engineering at UTPA, began the initial research on her idea of ForceSpinning technology in 2006. Deviating from the industry standard of using heat or electrical current (which can contaminate the fibers) to make nanofibers, Dr. Lozano worked out a process of centrifuging the materials and spinning out superfine nanofiber strands. In collaboration with Dr. Kamal Sakar, she perfected the process and applied for a patent, which is pending.
The assistance of UTPA’s Office of Innovation and Intellectual Property, Rapid Response Manufacturing Center and the School of Business combined with the Texas Emerging Technology Fund, McAllen EDC and McAllen Chamber of Commerce brought the technology to the marketplace.
“It takes a village to bring a FibeRio here,” said UTPA President Dr. Robert Nelsen, commenting on the collaboration necessary. He noted the university’s revised mission statement includes a commitment to job creation and building prosperity through entrepreneurship and commercialization.
A technology startup is not for faint-hearted. Jacquelyn Michel, Director of the Office of Innovation and Intellectual Property, first talked to Lozano in 2006.
“People tend to forget how long everything will take.”
A major obstacle for Lozano was the $40,000 required to get a Proof of Concept. Obtaining subsequent funding was not easy, either, despite the viability of the idea. Now money exists at the university to fund that early step. FibeRio CEO Ellery Buchanan mentioned it took a year to compete for and win Emerging Technology Fund backing. Now the ETF is an equity owner. Cottonwood Technology Fund of El Paso and Silverton Partners capitalized the startup. FibeRio licenses the core technology from the Board of Regents of UTPA and since then has developed its own intellectual property piggybacked on the concept. Dr. Lozano is FibeRio’s Chief Technology Officer.
“When you spin polymers into a nanofiber, you get a better barrier. We believe our technology is going to give a competitive edge to the users, both from perfecting the product and lowering the cost,” said Roger Lipton, FibeRio’s senior vice president for sales and marketing. “If you can save manufactures of diapers a few pennies per diaper, that’s a huge edge.”
Nanofibers are so small that in filters, for example, the designated air or liquid passes through quickly and doesn’t lose critical momentum, but it does capture target particles. FibeRio manufactures three different systems (machines) for research and development, which are used by academia and industries alike.
“The industrial companies aren’t even going to buy lab-scale unit until they have made a strategic commitment and have a clear idea of where they would use nanofibers,” Buchanan said. With the R&D tool, they can determine the viability of the products incorporating nanofibers and work out production details. Then they can turn to FibeRio to fabricate the industrial equipment that can be integrated into a production line.
The manufacturer has brought in specialized talent from Texas and the U.S.
“We are absolutely talking about high technology jobs, high paying jobs for highly educated people. And we are growing,” said Buchanan. FibeRio’s workforce includes engineers of every stripe: electrical, materials, mechanical.
Representatives from corporations in the U.S., Japan, Korea, India and South America have traveled to McAllen to talk to FibeRio. Norma and Samuel Torres of Amaida Machine Shop in Edinburg have toured the facility, as well, to see the end product Cyclone for which they fabricated the metal-frame components.
FibeRio is the first but will not be the last research-to-commercialization to come out of UPTA, Michel asserted. Other research is in the pipeline.
“We are actively educating our faculty (on the importance of commercializing research.) One of the things that has changed in the UT system is that patents are being viewed positively in the tenure process.”
For more information, see www.fiberio.com.
Story by Eileen Mattei
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