Eye on Research
Ten years ago, it was a nine-page appendix to show that a yeast could create polymer.
Now, it’s a product called the H2 Elastomer from a business called H-Trap One competing for investment at New Mexico State University’s Arrowhead Center AgAssembly, which takes place Sept. 26 at the New Mexico Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum.
“Part of the patent process that Arrowhead Center walked us through required us to demonstrate that the ‘hand of man’ was involved and David Johnson’s appendix for his dissertation showed it,” said NMSU molecular biology and biology professor Geoffrey Smith, one of the inventors of H2 Elastomer.
H-Trap One, led by former NMSU graduate student Luis Morales, is leveraging NMSU’s intellectual property for the polymer to be a viable product for the market.
“Arrowhead Center helped us lab geeks understand what it takes to go from papers to patents and help us realize we’re all entrepreneurs in the laboratory,” Smith said.
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Their agriculture-based discovery is a yeast from the beer/brewery yeast family that, when isolated and fed sugar, produces a next generation polymer, much like plastic. The polymer, with extremely small fibers, can inflate and deflate and trap hydrogen gas. Smith and Morales suspected that the polymer could be used in the burgeoning hydrogen economy, for example in fuel cells. With help from industry advisors at Arrowhead Center, they were pointed in another direction.
“Our adviser explained that the oil and gas industry could be a better market as the pipelines need protection from the corrosion of hydrogen,” Morales said. “That led us to think about creating a coating for the pipes with H2 Elastomer.”
Smith and Morales have taken part in a five-month AgSprint, a business accelerator for companies innovating in agricultural applications of food, energy and the environment. The program culminates in AgAssembly, which is open to the public, and where teams pitch to executives, investors, media, government, entrepreneurs, and other members of the ag industry ecosystem. The winning pitch secures a $20,000 award thanks to the generous support of New Mexico Gas Company, an Emera Company.
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“We’ve done a lot of work on the product development, but AgSprint helped us with commercialization, seeking funding so we can get in front of the public,” said Morales. “Arrowhead Center has been instrumental in connecting us to the right people that our business needed at each step.”
H-Trap One was also able to use Arrowhead Center’s connections to the New Mexico Small Business Assistance program. Three years ago, they were able to get help from Sandia National Laboratories in Livermore, California, with materials scientist Ray Friddle, who helped them test H2 Elastomer for important properties like heat resistance, flexibility and hydrogen permeability.
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Back at NMSU, the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences has bolstered H2 Elastomer’s growth, as NMSU professor Omar Holguin is helping to scale up the fermentation process of the yeast so that that Smith and Morales can provide a solid proof of concept for companies interested in using the product in their pipes.
“In a year we hope to have a preliminary coating and we’re looking for collaborations to pursue that,” said Morales. “We’re looking to move toward sublicenses to get this project to grow. It’s been programs like AgSprint that have kick started us into the right direction and the mentors have been top notch. Now we can think like our customers and our investors.”
Smith added, “It’s been a great resource to the bigger world of application, philosophically in how can this help people and would consumers want to buy this, ideas that don’t cross our minds in the lab, and practically by offering up connections that help us build the product and our business.”
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