Innovation center in Ashland pushes ideas ahead of the curve

Peter Bacque | Richmond Times-Dispatch

In Ashland, parts of tomorrow are getting ready to happen today.

What if we could recycle disposable diapers, using them to water trees and improve their growth?

How about building a 98 percent efficient electric motor, or using new polymer coatings to help airplanes and power lines shed debilitating icing?

Perhaps we can make biofuels from power plants’ carbon dioxide emissions, and brew up valuable renewable chemicals from corn.

The Dominion Resources Innovation Center is working on turning those bright-shining ideas into moneymaking businesses — smarter, faster and better.

And working with six firms now, “things are right at the cusp,” said William H. Daughtrey, the center’s entrepreneur-in-residence and functionally its executive director.

The center, founded in 2009, aims to provide startups and early-stage companies with “engaged guidance” and business support so they become financially successful companies in Hanover County.

“Most companies come here to develop prototypes,” Daughtrey said. “Until they see a prototype, people aren’t going to put big bucks in it.”

The Dominion Resources Innovation Center “is a technology and engineering center that allows a diverse group of technologies to exchange ideas and strategies toward commercializing the business or product of each company,” said Joel Stone, president of one of those firms, Green Biologics.

And “the executive director of the center has been an outstanding sounding board to share ideas and receive feedback,” Stone said.

Dominion Resources Inc., Ashland, Hanover County and the Virginia Bio-Technology Research Park are the center’s founding partners.

Committing $250,000 over five years to the center, “Dominion has been on the ground floor of supporting and encouraging the growth of clean and green technology,” company spokesman David Botkins said.

“We’d like to see companies graduating, commercialize their businesses, and actually function here in the community,” Ashland Town Manager Charles W. Hartgrove said.

Recruiting new businesses is expensive for a community, Hartgrove said. “We’re trying to grow from within” while bringing Ashland and Hanover into the Richmond business community.

The Dominion Resources Innovation Center is one of three incubators in the Richmond region.

Another is Lighthouse Labs, which graduated its first class of companies in the fall and will reopen for applications this spring. 80amps provides office space to nine startups along with support services and advice from its space in the Manchester area of South Richmond.

At the Dominion Resource Innovation Center, one company has “graduated,” Daughtrey said, but the solar energy-related firm went out of business after operating for about a year when market conditions changed. Two other companies left the center when they realized they couldn’t commercialize their technologies.

Studies by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Census Bureau show that more than half of American businesses are no longer in operation five years after they are founded.

Now “we have a different group (of companies with different technology focuses) than before, and they’re making pretty good progress,” Daughtrey said.

Here are the ideas coming to fruition at the innovation center:

Electric Force Motors

Electrical engineer Weston Johnson’s Electric Force Motors has completed the design of his high-efficiency — 98 percent — electric motors and generators, and their controls, and he’s discussing building products for manufacturing and health care companies.

Using electric fields rather than magnetic fields to run them, his motors eliminate the “back iron” of conventional electric motors by using engineering-grade plastics instead.

“We don’t waste energy as heat,” he said. “We’re lighter and more efficient.”

Where did he get the concept? “Benjamin Franklin,” Johnson said. “It’s a very old idea.”

“The secret sauce is the materials,” he said. “What I’m working through now is how we manufacture the motor with the materials.”

He sees a market for 5 horsepower to 25 horsepower motors for commercial applications.

Green Vision Energy

Burning a ton of coal produces 2 tons of carbon dioxide, but those emissions can create a ton of algae to make biofuels.

Despite environmental regulations, cheap natural gas and subsidized renewable energy sources, the U.S. Energy Information Administration expects about a third of U.S. electricity will be generated using coal for the foreseeable future.

“Our vision is to bring sustainability to the coal utilities,” said Hugh Conway with Green Vision Energy LLC. Conway is a physicist by education and an IT entrepreneur by occupation.

Green Vision’s algae-based bioreactor can turn a power plant’s carbon dioxide into biodiesel fuel, as well as higher-value products, such as plastics or nutritional supplements.

The nascent company is installing a wastewater-treatment facility at a paper-manufacturing company in Wisconsin. The paper mill churns out carbon dioxide and phosphorus-polluted water — “ideal feedstocks for algae,” Conway said.

That pilot project should produce 11 tons of algae a day to make biodiesel worth $600 a ton, and validate other, higher-value end products.

But “we need to get past that paper mill running,” he said. “We have a major chemical company and a major coal utility saying, ‘I want to see it work.’ ”

Green Biologics

Green Biologics Inc. has developed special fermentation and chemical processes to produce butyl alcohol from sugars and cellulose, the main part of the cell walls of plants, such as wood and grasses.

“We are a process and product company,” said Green Biologics’ Stone. “We have developed a fermentation and process technology platform for making renewable chemicals and, in our case, n-butanol.”

Butanol serves as the basic building block in the four-carbon group of chemicals, which serves the $85 billion worldwide paints, coatings, inks and adhesives business, Stone said.

The Dominion Resources Innovation Center pointed out that Green Biologics could benefit from the possible synergy with Green Vision Energy’s technology to increase production of biodiesel for jet fuel.

Green Biologics recently raised $25 million and bought an ethanol plant in Minnesota that it is converting to butanol, Stone said.

The company is planning for its first commercial plant to be online early in 2016, Stone said.

“Consumers want renewable products,” he said. “Those are the markets that we are focused on.”

Polymer Exploration Group

Ice creates problems — sometimes dangerous and destructive problems — for aircraft, power lines, industrial refrigerators and wind turbines, among other things.

“I make ice-release coatings,” said chemical engineer Wei Zhang, who uses the Dominion Resources Innovation Center for office and wet-lab space.

“The original idea was to let ice detach or drop off from the surface without spraying chemicals,” he said.

Working with VCU chemical engineering professor Kenneth J. Wynne’s Polymer Exploration Group LLC, Zhang is seeking a $750,000 National Science Foundation small-business innovation research grant for the next two years’ development.

“We call this a platform technology that can be used for different applications,” Zhang explained. “I’d like to see this technology really being put to use.”

While feasibility has been shown for specific applications, he said, the coating needs perfecting.

Zhang said the novel ice-release coating technology needs to be fine-tuned for specific applications: aerospace and energy-based applications, and industrial refrigeration. Separately, the company is pursuing research on biomedical materials, medical devices, and therapeutic methods with polymer-related materials.

For instance, he said, the coatings can be made so that they kill otherwise resistant strains of bacteria, which would be useful in medical devices such as catheters.

“We’re going to bring it to market,” Zhang said.

ITL Virginia

The Dominion Resources Innovation Center is providing a launching pad for an established British medical instrument company to attract customers who want to open up overseas markets, and to help its existing customers seeking to break into the U.S. market.

The United Kingdom’s Integrated Technologies Ltd. does contract design and manufacturing of medical instruments, and provides after-sales service worldwide.

ITL Virginia is the firm’s first U.S. office. Clocks on the wall show the time in Ashland, the U.K. and China.

ITL Virginia occupies an office and 1,000 square feet of warehouse and assembly space at the center.

“It’s really interesting for a small community like Ashland to be involved internationally, to be providing a soft landing spot for ITL of Europe,” Ashland’s Hartgrove said.

“If they can come here and start a business and hire local folks, that’s a win-win,” he said.

The company just hired its first local employee.

Zynnovation

Hailing Yang, who is married to Zhang, began to notice the number of disposable diapers her first baby was using.

“I counted, 13 per day,” the polymer scientist said. “I found that nobody recycled them. In landfills, these diapers will last hundreds of years.”

She’s figured out a way to recycle all the material in the diapers and make “tree mats” — which they are marketing as Treediaper — out of them.

Yang collected diapers from the VCU Child Development Center to make the prototypes, which are being tested by local nurseries and government agencies.

In effect reverse diapers for trees and plants, her Zynnovation LLC’s tree mats absorb water and then gradually release it over time, saving irrigation water and labor. Funded by a National Science Foundation small-business innovation research grant, one field test resulted in saving 60 gallons of water per tree last summer and fall.

Rainwater automatically recharges the tree mats.

“I wanted to reduce the carbon footprint of babies, including mine, and make money,” Yang said.

“There’s a big market for the mat.”

Copyright Richmond Times-Dispatch.  Used by permission.