KALAMAZOO — When Folia Water Inc. sought to partner with a paper manufacturer to advance its water filtration technology from the initial proof of concept phase, the company faced a dilemma.
The Pittsburgh, Pa.-based startup had its choice of two traditional paths to commercialize its inexpensive specialty water filtration paper that it planned to send to impoverished countries. Folia could stay with its current manufacturer, which donated time and equipment to the company but offered little by way of production capabilities. Or it could try to convince a larger manufacturer that the product was worth an investment of significant resources for full-scale production.
“It’s just a huge ask,” said Cantwell Carson, chief technology officer at Folia. “It basically says, ‘Hey, I had an idea once upon a time, and I’d like you to spend tens of thousands of dollars on machines and personnel to see if I had a good idea or not.’”
Instead, Folia uncovered a third option, Western Michigan University’s (WMU) Paper Pilot Plant in Kalamazoo, that Carson said made the best use of the company’s resources.
WMU’s Paper Pilot Plant gives startups such as Folia an opportunity to prove out and make tweaks to products before entering large-scale production.
In addition to startups, the facility serves as a skunkworks for larger paper companies that don’t want to tie up valuable production space at their main facilities, said Lon Pschigoda, general manager of the Pilot Plant program. The organization also serves as a proving grounds for chemical manufacturers working on new pigments, fibers and other chemicals.
The Paper Pilot Plant employs five production workers, including a manager, and is part of a larger network of facilities on WMU’s campus that offer paper coating, development and recycling services.
Folia recently concluded a two-day production run at the Paper Pilot Plant, where it manufactured approximately 700 pounds of its specialized paper. By comparison, Folia could only produce up to 50 pounds of paper per day with its previous manufacturer.
The company’s filter paper is made by synthesizing silver nanoparticles during the production process.
For Folia, the WMU Pilot Plants offered a way for the company to scale up production and make any necessary tweaks to its product to adapt to higher-volume runs. Moreover, it also opened the door to courting larger manufacturers, several of which Folia is currently in talks with, Carson said.
“They have the flexibility and go in and really say, ‘OK, now that we know it’s possible, what does that high-performance paper look (like) at the medium (production) scale?” Carson said. “That’s what opened up conversations with larger manufacturers. Because of Western, we have a shot of landing someone even bigger who can do it on the scale of five to ten tons per day.”
Stepping up to a larger production facility also allows Folia to cut production costs, a key factor in its mission that includes providing inexpensive clean drinking water to impoverished countries, Carson said.
The Paper Pilot Plant’s flexibility is one of the key selling points of the facility in comparison to much larger manufacturers, Pschigoda said.
“We can run ten different settings, ten different fibers and chemistries in a day,” he said. “We have the flexibility with a smaller system to do a lot of different variations in one day.”
THE FUTURE OF PAPER
Pschigoda believes the paper industry will continue to grow, especially as it pertains to specialty applications.
He cites nanocellulose technology as a particularly interesting growth area. The technology breaks down wood fibers used to make paper to a point where they can be reformed into a lightweight, high-strength biomaterial. Researchers are developing the technology to be used in applications ranging from television screens to body armor.
The nanocellulose industry is projected to encompass a $600 billion industry, according to data from the U.S. Forest Service cited in a report by RISI Inc., a market research firm based in Bedford, Mass.
While WMU’s Pilot Plants are still in the fledgling stages of building out a nanocellulose program, Pschigoda remains confident that it will gain steam. The university recently hired Dr. Kecheng Li, who specializes in the technology, as the department chair of Western’s Paper and Chemical Engineering department.
“We have momentum going here for our little paper program,” Pschigoda said. “We have a new department head that’s going to bring a lot of great research (and) I’m using my industry contacts to drum up business. There’s a lot of people that don’t know what we could do.”
For Carson of Folia, paper manufacturing could provide the basis for a multitude of new, innovative products.
“A paper machine starts to become this thing that is very flexible,” he said. “You can create all of these different grades, treatments and strengths without changing the tooling one bit. The only thing you’re paying for is the pulp, your chemical and the ability to take the paper and dry it in a sheet.”
Editor's Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Folia produced 700,000 pounds of paper during its two-day production run at the WMU Paper Pilot Plant. Folia actually produced 700 pounds over the two days.