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I-Corps@Ohio teams support innovation and create economic development

Two Ohio University I-Corps@Ohio teams, Paint from Pollution and Ohio Construction Composites, are spurring regional economic development in southeastern Ohio through the commercialization of wastewater as paint and coal plastic composite as building materials.

Ohio University’s Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs’ partnership with I-Corps@Ohio, modeled after the national I-Corps program launched by the National Science Foundation, provides hands-on training to Ohio faculty and graduate students in evaluating market needs and commercial potential of innovative technologies.

I-Corps@Ohio, funded by the Ohio Department of Higher Education, highlights the business side of technology and teaches researchers and innovators how to take an idea and turn it into an economically viable enterprise. Through the program, I-Corps@Ohio has proven its ability to overcome the state’s challenges in commercializing technology from academic institutions, which are higher in Appalachian Ohio.

“These two teams represent the economic and environmental opportunities available in the Appalachian region,” said Norm Chagnon, program director of I-Corps@Ohio. “Even a rural university like Ohio University can help the economy grow and provide services that drive scalable business models and serve as a basis for startup companies in the region.”

To date, eight Ohio University teams have been chosen to participate in the program and have developed innovations in medical devices, drug discovery, avionics and advanced materials.

Guy Riefler, principal investigator of the Paint from Pollution team, aims to restore streams harmed by acid mine drainage without making the government pay overwhelming costs of remediation.

In 2016, Voinovich school’s researchers tested streams contaminated by acid mine drainage in Southeast Ohio and concluded that only 46 stream miles qualified as a healthy habitat for animals and plants out of the 142 miles tested.

Riefler and his team developed a wastewater treatment technology for government agencies and mining companies that can create paint pigment from acid mine drainage, which can potentially become a profitable way to cover the remediation costs.

A highly polluted stream with a massive iron oxide content can be turned profitable because it will allow Riefler and his team to source more paint.

Riefler said that once his technology is fully commercialized, he hopes to generate money for cleaning the streams through a wastewater treatment plant that will employ people, generate sales and earn small profits.

With I-Corps@Ohio guidance, Riefler and his team gathered data on the market needs. They called over 100 potential customers to understand whether there was a market for paint sourced from rivers damaged by acid mine drainage and a sustainable business model to commercialize that product.

Through Ohio University art professor John Sabraw in the College of Fine Arts, Riefler was able to connect with Gamblin Artist Colors, one of the largest paint companies in the country, which agreed to buy the paint.

“My whole life as a researcher has been spent learning science. I had no idea how to take an idea and turn it into a business,” said Riefler, who is a professor and chair in department of civil engineering in the Russ College of Engineering and Technology. “The I-Corps@Ohio program taught me and my team the value in understanding the marketplace. I don’t see how we could have made it to this last step of transitioning from a research project to a business without the I-Corps@Ohio program.”

Paint from Pollution’s efforts were successful. With the help of Rural Action, they were able to secure approximately half of the total required $7.5 million in funding from a federal agency for the development of a full-scale plant. Riefler is also seeking another large retailer after the full-scale wastewater treatment plant is established because huge amounts of paint will be produced.

“Thanks to I-Corps@Ohio, this project serves as a model of collaboration between art and science to show other people that together we can solve issues,” said Sabraw, who is also the chair of Painting + Drawing. “We’ve shown that you can move your project forward much more effectively and faster with greater innovation when you do collaborate.”

Similar to Paint from Pollution, Ohio Construction Composites utilizes innovative technology to help the growth of the economy. The coal industry has declined in recent years because of the low cost of natural gas and renewable energy.

Ohio Construction Composites creates an environmentally-friendly demand for coal in the Appalachian region, where more than half of the coal mines have closed since 2008 and production decreased from 390 million tons to 200 million tons in 2018, according to an article in Mountain Top Media.  

Ohio Construction Composites develops composite materials for decking applications using coal as the filler material in the thermoplastic matrix. This significantly reduces cost and improves the quality of decking composites.

Using coal as a filler also prevents traditional issues associated with wood, such as water absorption and fungal attacks. Additionally, manufacturing composites with coal consumes 60% less energy and produces 40% less greenhouse gas emissions when compared to wood plastic composites.

Yahya Al Majali, entrepreneurial lead for the Ohio Construction Composites, said I-Corps@Ohio helped them understand the market and customer needs. The team discovered multiple new applications of their technology after they reached out to decking companies.

The research and feedback from manufacturers, vendors, contractors and various companies about the issues faced with wood plastic composites also encouraged Al Majali and his team to improve their technology. The team started to think of ways to increase performance and lower price.

“I-Corps taught the importance of research and application of product before the innovation of technology takes place,” said Al Majali, who is also a mechanical engineering doctoral student in the Russ College. “I would encourage all researchers to participate in I-Corps@Ohio to better understand customers and vendors.”

Al Majali and his team’s commercialization efforts also proved successful as they secured funding from the U.S. Department of Energy and are now partnering with CONSOL Energy and Engineered Profiles.

The commercialization of the innovative technologies from Paint from Pollution and Ohio Construction Composites will ultimately lead to the development of viable businesses, which will create environmentally-friendly employment opportunities in Appalachian Ohio.

“I-Corps@Ohio is all about helping universities commercialize their research and intellectual properties. Specifically, helping researchers and their teams connect with industry to commercial opportunities,” said Lynn Gellermann, executive director of TechGROWTH Ohio, which represented Ohio University as a founding partner for I-Corps@Ohio. “The experience with I-Corps@Ohio has included invaluable experiential learning for OHIO’s participating teams through the program’s curriculum, industry mentors and customer discovery exercises.”

June 11, 2020
Hardika Singh