By Bill Virgin
Washington Manufacturing Alert
Original content from Washington Manufacturing Alert published with permission.
CleanTech Alliance Washington’s third annual showcase in Seattle last week did not lack for interesting ideas and promising technologies offered by companies ranging from big, long-established outfits like Boeing to tiny startups whose ideas have barely emerged from the white-board stage.
That’s encouraging for the state’s manufacturing industry, provided those fledgling companies, once they get to production, make what they’ve developed in Washington.
So far, lots of those companies say they want to, but there are both attractive features and obstacles to manufacturing locally.
SuperCritical Technologies, a Bremerton company developing small modular power generators driven by waste heat, decided on the local port as its headquarters because of the available workforce, transportation access and public support for clean-tech companies, all of which will be important as the company scales up and begins recording sales.
“On the one hand, Washington state is a terrible place for an energy startup be-cause we’ve got such a low price of energy,” said Craig Husa, SuperCritical’s chief executive officer. “On the other hand, if you can make it work here you can make it work anywhere.”
Polydrop, a Seattle-based company commercializing a University of Washington technology to make a conductive additive to paint, coatings and thin transparent films, would like to pair up with Washington manufacturers as it reaches the commercial stage, said Leah Riley, chief technology officer.
“For us, getting assistance in the scale-up would be huge” she said. “We feel very strongly about staying in Washington state, but it becomes hard when you don’t have the funds to do so and some place else is cheaper or somebody from a different state is willing to help you.”
Riley said PolyDrop would like to handle production itself, if it can afford to. “The question is how much investment capital do you want to put forward and how much easier is it to toll or contract manufacture. We would prefer to bring it in house but that does require a lot of money.”
Regulation will also play a role in the decision, she added. PolyDrop already believes it will have to go out of King County to make its product.
Some companies are limited in how much of the production they can do locally. Such is the case with Eco-Tec Inc., based in the Key Peninsula community of Vaughn. Eco-Tec takes waste material from the textile industry and has it woven into an absorbent fabric that can be used for oil spills.
“Because of the way things have changed in our economy,” domestic textile mills are mostly gone, said Herb Pearse, Eco-Tec’s president. “They’re over in China. The only textile mill we could find close to the U.S. is in Mexico.” That manufacturer, which produces interiors for Honda cars (“They make a quality product,” Pearse said), makes the fabric, while Eco-Tec assembles the end products in the U.S.
In some fields such as pharmaceutical production there are tax advantages to going out of state, said J. Thomas Ranken, the alliance’s chief executive. “I don’t know that that’s as significant in this field. The fact that you’ve got something developed and ready to manufacture, location’s really important, particularly for early stage companies doing it for the first time.
“There’s so many things that can go wrong,” he added. “It’s really hard to do things out of state where you have to get on an airplane to go see what’s going on or to fix a problem.
“I’m not really aware of anybody that’s looking to do things out of state when they get to that stage. It’s always an issue, from Boeing to everyone else. As they get larger those issues become more complicated. For right now people seem focused on staying home.”
Ranken said interest in the showcase, from exhibitors to attendees, indicates the health of the clean-tech sector. “Everything is up a notch from last year,” he said. “It’s not one big thing. More companies are applying to do the presentations. We took half of them that applied. You had to be better to make it.”
And while the sector has seen its share of well-publicized failures and unrealized promises, Ranken said the sector has moved beyond the overhyped stage. “People understand that to build a business you have to have a value proposition for the customer,” meaning that what they’re offering will deliver a product that’s “better, faster, cheaper,” he said.
A number of the startups appear to be on the cusp of breaking out as commercial ventures. Husa said Super-Critical, currently at just eight employees, has potential customers looking at its generators and hopes to have sales this year in two markets it’s initially targeting: backup power for data centers and for biomass plants.
Among other companies making presentations or exhibiting at the show:
- Spokane-based Ag-Energy Solutions is developing systems that take post-harvest or processing residue and turn it into electricity, fuel and biochar, a soil amendment. Phil Appel, co-founder of the company, said the autonomously operating units can handle Russian thistles, corn stalks, manure and wood chips. AgEnergy has signed a contract to provide biochar to a tomato greenhouse grower, and Appel said growers in California are interested in the units for generating electricity for irrigation. The units can also generate hydrogen for use as a fuel, he said.
- The Composite Recycling Technology Center at the Port of Port Angeles has signed an agreement to be the West Coast satellite location for the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation in Tennessee, a national manufacturing hub (see related story, page 1).
- With Oregon legalizing industrial hemp, and Washington moving that way, companies are looking at specific applications of the material. One of those is ZilaWorks, a Puget Sound area company developing hempcrete, in which hemp is used in a composite material that would replace drywall. One advantage of using hemp, said Jason Puracal, co-founder and CEO, is that the hollow nature of the fiber allows it to release moisture.
- Imber Water Treatment Inc. of Seattle is developing modular graywater treatment units designed to reduce commercial-building water use by more than half.
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