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Volume 4, Issue 2
December 2011

Chemistry Professor's Research Leads to Award Winning InPore Technologies

InPore Technologies is an award-winning, Michigan based, startup company created from the science discoveries of a chemistry professor at Michigan State University.

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Dr. Thomas J. Pinnavaia joined MSU's Chemistry Department in 1966, and continues to have considerable enthusiasm for the challenges of chemical research with inorganic materials. He is the lead inventor on more than 80 issued and pending U.S. patents, has served as a member of the editorial boards of nine international scientific journals, and has won several national and international awards.

The current company is the evolution of a company called Claytec, Inc., that represented Pinnavaia's earlier work with inorganic materials.

InPore Technologies produces a product for applications in the plastics industry called Silapore™. The Silapore particles produced have numerous pores comparable in size to polymer molecules, and the way they are structured work synergistically with other chemical agents to improve flame retardancy while making the compounds stronger and/or lighter, and therefore less expensive for manufacturers to produce in a variety of industry capabilities.

Platform Technology

One of the many challenges faced by academic research scientists involves platform technology development. "The discovery is obviously the first thing that captures our interest, but after that we need to stay with development and bring the product to a viable delivery for the business market," says Pinnavaia.

As with prior endeavors, Dr. Pinnavaia focused on the scientific work. Then he went looking for partners to help develop and implement business market viability.

During a presentation at Ann Arbor SPARK, the greater Ann Arbor regional economic development corporation, Pinnavaia met Gerald P. Roston. Roston is an early-stage technology business development consultant with a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from Carnegie Mellon University and a professional background in robotics. He was a founding member of the NASA Mars Rover team.

"Roboticists have broad interdisciplinary study because we design, build, and program robots. That requires mechanical, electrical, and computer software engineering knowledge, as well as creative, solution-based thinking," says Roston. "It was a natural progression to use my understanding of complex systems needs in the business sector for other technology development efforts."

Roston is a partner in Pair of Docs Consulting, an international business development consulting firm. In addition, he leads the board of directors for the New Enterprise Forum, a Michigan non-profit that links entrepreneurs to management expertise, potential joint venture partners, and other business resources.

After the presentation, Roston approached Pinnavaia for more information. Following additional conversations, InPore Technologies was established in 2010 with Roston as chief executive officer and Pinnavaia as executive vice president and chief scientific officer.

In June 2010 InPore beat out 21 finalists to receive the top award in the SmartZone category of the Great Lakes Entrepreneur's Quest annual business plan competition. The competition was judged by U.S. venture capitalists from coast to coast and the award came with a $100,000 prize.

Each man credits the other for moving InPore Technologies forward. "Gerry designed, and has since updated, an outstanding business plan that investors respond to favorably," said Pinnavaia.

"Tom Pinnavaia is an acclaimed, internationally renowned scientist who understands how to take an invention to the marketplace and make it viable," says Roston.

Product Development, Operations, and Marketing Strategies

Silapore™ particles currently show promise in two areas, flame retardation and water purification. Pinnavaia is working on those concepts, while Roston raises venture capital for equipment acquisition and product expansion, and implements the business plan.

According to the executive summary of InPore's business plan, the company's intellectual property resides in a large portfolio of patents owned by Michigan State University, which the company has licensed on an exclusive basis. The document also describes the invention as an "economically viable method for producing mesoporous silicate materials invented by Dr. Thomas J. Pinnavaia" that was "built upon a now-expired Mobil Oil Corporation patent."

Another key component of the business plan addresses sales and marketing strategies. Roston met Michael Brooks through ACE — the Annual Collaboration for Entrepreneurship, an event that promotes entrepreneurial endeavors in the Great Lakes region. Brooks was added to the InPore team as vice president of business development. Brooks has more than 30 years of experience in the polymer industry, including sales and products management, and has managed multi-million dollar growth programs and business expansions.

"I'm focused on selling our product and that includes constantly looking for new applications and learning about new needs from potential customers that benefit from our technology," says Brooks.

The business plan has a timetable of approximately five years for scaling up and attracting acquisition by a larger operation. But for Pinnavaia, it is most gratifying to think that his scientific discoveries will benefit others, now and in the future.

"Our research group gains tremendous personal satisfaction from our scientific discoveries," says Pinnavaia. "The scientists and students know that our work has a practical impact on our world, now and in the future."

  • Written by Carla Hills, University Outreach and Engagement
  • Photograph Courtesy of InPore Technologies