Imagine a world in which plastic bottles, packaging and other products break down and disappear rather than piling ever higher in landfills.
Ryan T. Martin and Stephen Miller of Florida Sustainables can. And thanks to the $50,000 Cade Prize for Innovation, they are one step closer to realizing their dream.
Their company has won the 2nd Annual Cade Prize for Innovation. Along with $50,000 in cash, Florida Sustainables is receiving $5,000 in legal services from the law firm of Edwards, Angell Palmer & Dodge, and a year’s free rent and support from the Gainesville Technology Enterprise Center.
“We were among some great competition and it’s really gratifying to win,” Martin says.
A doctoral student at the University of Florida, Martin works in a research group run by Miller, who is a professor of chemistry. The group had been investigating ways to create biodegradable plastics for several years and in 2008 came up with polyesteracetal plastic, a sturdy but biodegradable product “by design, trial and error and patience,” Martin says.
Much like the discovery itself, Florida Sustainables relied on patience to win this year’s Cade Prize. The company, which had been known as Sestar Sustainables, was among the four finalists for last year’s award but came up short.
“Really losing was a great blessing. I think if we had won last year we wouldn’t have been ready to take full advantage of the prize,” Martin admits. “Instead, we celebrated failure and honed in on the areas that need improvement. We ended up with a much more viable product.”
That attitude is what the Cade Prize is all about, says Phoebe Cade Miles, the president of the Cade Museum Foundation. “It is our mission to promote optimism,” she says. “It is our hope that we can help many more inventors going forward through events like this competition.”
A Unique Plastic
Two things make Florida Sustainables’ plastic compelling. First, unlike standard plastics, which are made from the limited supply of petroleum, their product is derived from low-value agricultural waste. Even more importantly, while petroleum-based plastics last 1,000 years once they’ve been discarded, polyesteracetal plastics completely degrade in five to 10 years.
Professor Miller says he hopes the Cade Prize will now help Florida Sustainables attract investors so the company can get its revolutionary plastic into mass production. Team members also are talking with large-scale plastic manufacturers who might want to adopt the product and the result could be very profitable.
“Plastics is a $1.3 trillion a year market with $400 billion for packaging alone,” Martin says. “If we’re able to corner one-quarter of one percent, that’s a $1 billion industry.”
Martin plans to stay involved with the project as it moves forward, but in addition to completing his PhD, he is studying patent law at UF’s Law School. “My ultimate goal is to work as a patent attorney and help companies to get their products into the market,” he says.
In earning the Cade Prize, Florida Sustainables’ plastic beat out a user-friendly brain monitor developed by Optima Neurscience, a high-efficiency filter developed by Sol-Gel Solutions to improve air quality in planes, and a lightweight exoskeleton that can help people with arthritis, diabetes or traumatic injuries walk. It was invented by Xobotix.
Each of these companies received $2,500 in free legal services from Edwards, Angell Palmer & Dodge, and $5,000 in cash made possible from donations by successful local start-up companies, including Exactech, Infinite Energy, NovaMin and RTI Biologics.
Florida Sustainables’ $50,000 prize was funded by the Gainesville Community Foundation. The Council for Economic Outreach underwrote the cost of the space and services provided at GTEC.