Soy demand getting a boost through Airable Research Lab
By Matt Reese (originally published by Ohio's Country Journal)
With an increasing number of consumers looking for environmentally friendly products, there is growing demand for plant-based chemical feedstocks in a wide range of uses (for example, as alternatives to petroleum-based plastics). More companies are finding ways to better serve their customers with bioproducts that can lower costs, provide functional benefits, and reduce the environmental impacts.
One example is Roof Maxx, a soy-based emulsion that can extend the life of roof shingles. The product was developed through a collaborative effort between Roof Maxx Technologies, LLC, the Ohio Soybean Council (OSC), and Battelle in Columbus. Brothers Mike and Todd Feazel sold a successful roofing business to start Roof Maxx Technologies and develop this cost-effective, earth-friendly roofing treatment.
The Feazels have been in the roof replacement business for many years and saw the great need for extending the life of traditional roofing to add value for customers. Roof Maxx restores the flexibility of aging shingles and their ability to repel water, extending the useful life of an existing roof for 10 to 15 years — and at a fraction of the cost of roof replacement. The product saves money, reduces landfill waste, and creates demand for soy.
“People are seeing the value, and there’s never been anything like it,” said Mike Feazel. “The bio-aspect adds a lot to it — the main driver is economics and saving people money — but being a green product helps, especially on the West Coast and areas like Asheville, North Carolina, or Boulder, Colorado, where there are more people with that mindset. Across the board, if people can save money and be green, too, it feels good.”
Feazel estimates that, so far, Roof Revivers has used 20,000 gallons of soy oil. With the business growing rapidly, that number could be closer to 200,000 gallons next year.
“We’re in the process of moving and expanding manufacturing,” Feazel said. “We’ve brought on new employees. We went from 6 to almost 20 in the last three months — our staff is growing quickly.”
Roof Maxx is just one of many examples of commercially successful soy-based products. The OSC–Battelle research partnership has led to numerous products, from powders to polymers, sealers to surfactants. The focus is not only on research and development but extends through demonstration and commercialization.
For example, the collaboration developed EnzoMeal, an advanced soybean-based fish feed that can help improve the sustainability of the aquaculture industry. OSC moved forward to patent and license the technology. EnzoMeal production is expected to consume over a million pounds of soybeans in 2020. OSC has a long and successful history of working directly with partners in the research, university, non-profit, and commercial industries to upgrade products and create new ones. Many of these products — including EnzoMeal — have won numerous national and international accolades, including ten R&D 100 Awards, the most prestigious research and development award in the world.
While these types of outside partnerships will continue, OSC is taking a new angle on commercial development of soy-based products with the recent creation of Airable Research Lab. Located in central Ohio, the lab is a new business model and brand that will capitalize on current research and find new opportunities to expand the use of soy in household and commercial products.
“The Ohio Soybean Council has been investing in the development of new products made from soybeans for decades, and we’ve had tremendous success,” said Steve Reinhard, OSC chairman and Crawford County soybean farmer. “We hold multiple patents on products we’ve developed with partners and received multiple awards. But the most important part of this work is the value and return on investment we’re bringing back to Ohio soybean farmers.”
Airable Research Lab will increase OSC’s reach and ability to market its services to potential partners. Through every commercial development stage, the lab’s chemists and inventors will work with clients to develop solutions tailored to their needs.
“For more than 20 years, OSC has been funding research for bioproducts. Now, not only are we funding other folks developing soy-based products, but we are developing our own soy-based products that we can get to market quickly and eliminate some of the middle men,” said Barry McGraw, OSC director of product development and commercialization. “This was an OSC idea, trying to figure out what more we can do with industrial soy-based products that create demand for soybeans. How do we take control of our own destiny and the farmer’s destiny? We want to do our own research and create our own intellectual property and develop our own products.
“Our current partners will still receive the same attention to detail and creative thinking they have come to expect from us. Companies all over the world, large and small, are hungry for green technology that is easy to adopt — we can provide them that. Soybean farmers are looking for new markets — we can create them.”
The Delaware-based Airable Research Lab expands opportunities for new product development by allowing for more flexibility in the R&D process.
“The lab allows us to provide funding to large commercial companies that want to develop soy-based products — and even more valuable than that, it allows us to provide soy-based ideas. Many of the companies ask us about ideas, and now we are able to create them and show those companies why they should be using soy in their products,” McGraw said. “If we’re following up on our own ideas, it is very important that we work hand-in-hand with commercial companies and ask them what their consumers need, what they want, what challenges they have. That way, we know we’re working on soy-based products that meet a real demand — products that will go to market quickly and sell well.”
The focus of Airable Research Lab will primarily be industrial and consumer products.
“We are looking at the chemistry, whether it is formulation or synthesis to develop new molecules or just formulating simple garage chemistries to get products out there quickly,” McGraw said. “Right now there are five of us, including me. We have two PhD chemists. We just hired a gentleman from Ohio State with a degree in chemistry, and we have two Ohio Wesleyan University interns working for us full time. We’re just getting started, and we’re already looking to grow.”
One of the on-staff researchers is Ram Lalgudi. Lalgudi has worked with OSC since 2003 while with Battelle and through his own company, Aries Science and Technology. His first project was a soy-based pressure-sensitive adhesive. He has since worked on numerous other products, including EnzoMeal and Roof Maxx. The process behind those products starts with market research.
“First, we identify commercial companies that are currently using or could potentially use soy-based products,” Lalgudi said. “We reach out to those companies, present our capabilities and ask about their unmet needs. We prioritize needs and present our solutions, with opportunities and risks, to the OSC board for approval.”
He has enjoyed working with soy because of its broad utility and numerous benefits.
“The benefit of using soy is that it is sustainable and provides performance features that are not typically available from petroleum-derived chemicals,” he said. “Beyond being green and sustainable, it provides functional benefits without affecting consumer health and the environment.”
When evaluating projects, the OSC research committee focuses on two primary factors: volume and sustainability. Nathan Eckel, a soybean farmer and OSC board member from Wood County, has been a part of these evaluations as a past research committee chairman.
“When looking at proposals, the number one thing we talked about was volume to make sure we’d be providing demand for our soybeans,” Eckel said. “We really brainstormed what the vision of the product could be and what the potential impact on the soybean industry could be. We’d also look at the environmental impact of the new products from a sustainability standpoint because that’s important to us as farmers, too.”
And, ultimately, new uses for soybeans drive more profitability for farmers.
“Any time we can add new value to the crop or commodity we’re producing, it’s beneficial to us as farmers,” Eckel said. “Sometimes, we can get stuck in the same old ruts, thinking we’re only going to use soybeans for oil and soybean meal, but it’s beneficial to my farm to find new uses. We have to stay relevant to stand the test of time. That’s the point of the checkoff and OSC: to maintain our relevance in agriculture. We have to continue to push the envelope.”