The office of Essentium Materials is off the beaten track in College Station in a nondescript building that, for most people, a GPS won’t even find. The address sends visitors to another location down the road. Inside, the lobby is equally unassuming: beige walls, a few desks clustered together, and—the only real décor—a couple of posters of palm trees festooned with coconuts.
But don’t let the first impression fool you. Exciting things happen behind the scenes. In laboratories at the back of the building, extruders and 3-D printers work their magic to produce new products vaguely reminiscent of their original forms. Essentium (pronounced ess-en-tee-um) is a place of grand ideas and vibrant innovation, thanks to the nonstop energy of its employees.
The Essentium team tests products in its materials lab in College Station. Left to right: Bryan Zahner ’15, materials engineer; Blake Teipel ’16, founder and CTO; and Ryan Vano, founder and program manager.
The true pulse of this startup, one could argue, is founder and CTO Blake Teipel ’16. Together with co-founders Elisa Teipel (also his wife and the company’s director of operations and engineering), CEO Gene Birdwell ’59, Ryan Vano and Matt Kirby (who has since left Essentium to return to graduate school), Blake built a company that he hopes will revolutionize the raw materials industry and transform entire socioeconomic models.
Essentium in a (Coco)nut Shell
In 2008, a team of researchers at Baylor University, which included Elisa Teipel and Ryan Vano, founded a company called Whole Tree to help the 10 million coconut farmers around the world. At the time, both were graduate students in Baylor’s Department of Mechanical Engineering.
The work began with coconut shells and husks. In tropical regions where coconuts flourish, the trees and fruit are what the Teipels call a “birthright resource” for the people who live there. Each year, coconut trees around the world produce 50 billion coconuts, leaving heaps of discarded husks. Not only is it a huge waste of potential resources, but the shells collect water in which mosquitos breed, making human populations in these regions highly susceptible to malaria.
Anne and Gene Birdwell ’59 believed in Essentium’s mission from the start and chose to invest in the company.
So the team sought a way to transform these under-utilized materials into useful products for the polymer composite industry. In this way, cycles of poverty can be disrupted, giving opportunities for locals to take agricultural waste and turn it into an engineered material.
A couple of years later, Gene Birdwell met the original team. Wanting to help them achieve their dream, he invested in the company.
“I’ve got some entrepreneurial blood, too,” said Birdwell, who graduated from Texas A&M University with a degree in civil engineering and founded Birdwell Construction.
One of Whole Tree’s first endeavors—and the innovation that put them on the map—involved combining coconut husk fibers and coconut shell powder with other polymers (including recycled plastics) to develop new materials for products like vehicle trunk liners and wall planters. Not only did this technology present a paradigm shift in recycling, it created a way to reduce petroleum consumption and carbon emissions.
In 2011, the company rebranded itself as Natural Composites Inc. (NCI). But like most startups, NCI experienced multiple transitions as it went from the original idea phase down the path toward commercial viability. Birdwell stood by throughout the company’s growth spurts and growing pains, and in early 2012, the company moved from Waco to College Station.