Menu

Spirit Archives

Spirit is published three times per year by the Texas A&M Foundation, which manages major gifts and endowments for the benefit of academic programs, scholarships and student activities at Texas A&M University.

View the full magazine archive

Feature Stories

Trailblazers

Material Boy

By Monika Blackwell

Contributor

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.
 

At the time, Blake was working as a senior design engineer at Caterpillar Inc., but he became interested in the NCI approach to new materials. Birdwell and the existing management recognized his talent, and before long, Blake joined the team.

The bumps continued, however, and after another year, it became apparent that a business model solely focused on coconuts wasn’t sustainable. Blake and the other engineers approached Birdwell and decided that it was time for a clean slate. Birdwell took over the company’s leadership, and the group reformed as a new venture called Essentium—a play on the words essential materials.

Today, Birdwell is still invested and active as Essentium’s CEO. “The kinetic energy and potential of the ‘coconut kids’ is what impressed me the most,” he said. “Without them, I would’ve taken the assets, sold them off and walked away.”

With a background in thermoplastic composites, Ryan Vano has helped Essentium obtain numerous private and federal technology commercialization grants and launch its initial line of products.

The social mission that first emerged in the Whole Tree days underpins all of Essentium’s work, but the team is always striving to find new ways to push the limit and explore materials from others angles. They now collaborate with Texas A&M’s College of Engineering and Mays Business School, seeking to cement Essentium’s position in multiple technical markets.

Blake describes their approach as a focus on the triple bottom line: people, planet, profit. This is the driving force behind Essentium.

Branching Out

For Blake, the transition to Essentium also meant an opportunity to continue his education. In addition to leading the company, he is now a fourth-year doctoral student in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at Texas A&M. As his CV states, he is “pursuing hi-sustainability, functionalized fillers for polymer nanocomposites.” But Blake possesses a unique gift—he can share his passion with the world by distilling CV language into contagious enthusiasm.

“Essentium,” he explained, “is focused on taking waste products and transforming them into resources, wherever possible.”

These days, Essentium still works with coconuts, but the team has transitioned into several other areas (see sidebar below). They now conduct research on thermoplastic composites (made from materials like cellulose) and metal-based energy materials. And they recently started working with cosmetics.

“We’re somewhere between chefs and scientists,” Blake explained, as he motioned toward a giant injection molder. “We can do different colors, different pigments, conductive polymers, mechanically strong polymers, or soft and flexible elastomeric polymers. After we make the materials, we test them to see if they are better or, as is sometimes the case, worse.”

In the conference room, Blake and Elisa pulled out small glass jars in the shape of lightbulbs, each filled with a different pelletized plastic. Then they laid out sheets of various materials molded together. The samples represent the steady stream of work Essentium produces. The company’s growing project list is a sign that their research and capability is in heavy demand.

“We are focused on making great materials,” Elisa said. “But we also want to produce disruptive technologies that can enter a marketplace and offer not only strong physical properties and meaningful environmental improvements, but be cost-competitive as well.”

For Blake, all of their research avenues are unified by a common thread. “What we are trying to do as engineers is tackle grand challenges. We look outside of our four walls, and we see challenges like poverty, pollution and the environment. These are the grand challenges that face the global society.

“We’re a small company, but we have big visions and dreams. We want to make a difference for people and the planet.”

Applications

Essentium Materials’ line of natural and recycled composites can be used in a variety of applications and industries such as:

Cellulose Composites

With tackling “grand challenges” in mind, the Essentium team applies what they learned through early coconut exploits to combine cellulose with plastic. This foray also ties in with Blake’s doctoral studies.

As the predominant compound found in grasses, wood and other plants, cellulose is, according to Blake, “a brilliant material at the nanoscale.” It’s also a major waste product in North America.

A prime example is paper mills, which create large amounts of pulp as a waste byproduct. This waste can be converted into cellulosic nanomaterials and, through Essentium’s innovative processing technology, transformed into new uses. According to Blake, this win-win strategy provides a “renaissance” in an industry that is otherwise struggling.

“It’s really important for individuals to do everything they can to minimize their own carbon footprint,” Blake said. “This is fairly accessible common knowledge. Essentium is trying to minimize the carbon footprint of industry on the million-pound scales using life-cycle analysis.”

Essentium’s cellulose work has received grants from the National Science Foundation and Ford Motor Co. “Automakers are calling for this material, and Essentium is a moving quickly to meet this need,” he said.

3-D Printing

The same companies that use injection-molded plastics for production often rely on 3-D printing for its flexibility and the high degree of customization that other manufacturing methods can’t reproduce. Essentium is working with inventors in Texas A&M’s Department of Chemical Engineering to develop cutting-edge 3-D printing plastics, scaling up to produce new materials for this growing industry.

“We’re trying to replace synthetic products with biologically-derived products wherever we can,” Blake explained. “Large companies buy plastic for production applications as well as for prototyping. We’re trying to gain access into both markets.”

Cosmetics

Blake and his colleagues are exploring how to process coconuts for products like cosmetics and super-refined oils. One potential use for coarse coconut powder is as a replacement for exfoliant microbeads in cosmetics, which some studies have found can pass through water treatment systems and be harmful to fish.

Winning Combination

Dick Lester presented Brandon Sweeney ’18 (left) and Blake Teipel ’16 (right) with an award for winning The Raymond Ideas Challenge in 2015.

Blake Teipel is more than an engineer. He’s a savvy entrepreneur. He won first place in The Raymond Ideas Challenge two years in a row—a feat that had never before happened in the 16 years of the challenge. His 2014 entry provided recommendations for converting biomass from trees damaged by beetle kills, oak blight and even forest fires into cellulose nanomaterials.

In 2015, Blake partnered with Brandon Sweeney ’18, now an intern at Essentium and a fellow doctoral candidate in materials science and engineering. The entry highlighted Sweeney’s research into developing a method to plastic-weld 3-D printed components to improve their overall strength and toughness. The technology can be applied to high-mobility prosthetic devices.

Under the mentorship of Don Lewis, the assistant director of Startup Aggieland, Blake and Sweeney took their concept to the inaugural SEC Entrepreneurial Pitch Competition. The pair beat teams from each of the other 13 SEC universities and walked away with a first place $10,000 prize that will support their prosthetics research.

“They’re solving a real-world problem with some really innovative, creative technology,” said Richard Lester, executive director of the Center for New Ventures and Entrepreneurship.

For Blake, these competitions and the support from his advisers play an important role in bringing his visions into reality.

“Texas A&M has provided more opportunities than I ever imagined. I knew I was coming here because the engineering education was good,” he said. “I didn’t know I was going to meet such an amazing community of people in the entrepreneurship world as well. Through the business innovation communities here, it’s clear that at both Texas A&M and the Brazos Valley, there is fertile soil in which the seeds of innovation can grow.”


Olive’s Legacy

Elisa and Olive Tiepel

The lights at Essentium are sometimes on late into the night, and the team can often be found toiling on the weekends. They have grand visions of changing the world, but for the Teipels, the motivation behind the work they do is also deeply personal.

In May 2015, Blake and Elisa lost their 5-month-old baby girl, Olive. Faced with tragedy, they chose to continue their work to make an impact in the world and honor their daughter’s legacy.

“Seeing Blake persevere through that loss shows, not only his desire to be a great leader for Essentium, but fundamentally who he is as a person,” Elisa said. “It’s been incredible to see that through the hardest year of our lives, Essentium has succeeded and we’re still moving forward. A lot of our new passion is because of Olive. She was our little intern and our little Aggie.”

Contact:

Caroline Gunn Rogers '10

Director of Development
Mays Business School