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Akron Ascent Innovations: Dry adhesives come of age

Kevin White is pictured with associates in the Akron Ascent Innovations lab. (Photo by Richard Weiner/Legal News).

Legal News Reporter

Published: December 6, 2016

Imagine hanging a sheet of paper, a picture or a dry erase board on a wall without tape or any sticky substance and then taking that paper down and putting it up on another wall without any residue or stickiness.

That is the function of a “dry adhesive,” and Akron Ascent Innovations, located in the Akron Global Business Accelerator, has developed a dry adhesive product that is so versatile that the company cannot keep up with potential applications, said Chief Operating Officer Kevin White.

“We are looking at consumer applications” rather than large commercial ones, said White. In developing products that adhere “home organization onto delicate surfaces,” White said that he literally had to tell people to stop creating new applications until the ones in development make it to market.

That hasn’t stopped the development team from looking at everything from spray-on human skin to 3-D printing and experimenting with weather-resistant outdoor applications like signs.

The basic technology came from polymer research conducted at The University of Akron, said White.

David Lupyan, a mentor in the university’s I-Corps program, which looks at technology transfer commercialization product potential, is very enthused about AAI’s possibilities.

“The commercialization of AAI product technology is a case study in personally connecting the people who manage the start up process to the people inside aggressive companies who are responsible for new products and business growth,” said Lupyan.

“University technology transfer is all about finding a willing partner, or early adaptor. AAI has engaged several willing Fortune 500 companies and has been able to create a product roadmap spanning several market categories,” he said.

AAI’s dry adhesive is a breakthrough product, said White.

The adhesive can hold up to 20 pounds, said White, opening up product ideas for everything from posters to picture hooks to shelving.

The adhesive is dry to the touch, not sticky, and can be pulled clean form a wall with no damage to paint or plaster, White said. The adhesive is also very light— enough to work on a piece of paper weights one tenth of a gram, with “no residue,” and at a cost far lower than conventional adhesives.

In simplest terms, White explained, the adhesive holds in one direction, meaning that it is virtually impossible to remove an object sprayed with the adhesive, say, a poster, from a wall pulling it downward, but the same poster can be easily peeled off the wall pulling a bottom corner upward.

AAI’s dry adhesive comes out of original research from The University of Akron, said White. The company combines the raw material with a fairly old technique called electrospinning, which is the base technology that makes air filters. “It is a new application of an old technology,” said White.

Electrospinning consists of a rapidly spinning drum which holds the object, say, a poster, that the adhesive will be put on through a spray nozzle. The drum can be of any size to accommodate any material. The original drum at AAI is about a foor long.

White said the adhesive comes out of the spray nozzle “like a spider web or cotton candy, 100 times thinner than a human hair.” Once affixed to a surface, the adhesive acts in the same way that spider or gecko feet use to walk on walls—a principle of physics called “contact splitting.”

“The gecko is the spirit animal of dry adhesives,” said White. In fact, AAI’s lab has pictures of geckos and spiders (and Spiderman) stuck to the walls with their adhesive.

“No conventional adhesives can do what we are doing,” White said. The adhesive is a simple formula, said White, which is about two-thirds biodegradable. “We are working on that last third.”

White, an Atlanta native and former college baseball player, certainly never thought that he would wind up in Akron, Ohio, after he received his doctorate in mechanical engineering from Texas Tech.

In May 2015, while working on environmental technology in Japan after graduating, White was offered the opportunity to come to Akron and work with this new technology. He jumped at the offer.

White said that it took about six months to take the base technology and develop the basic adhesive formula for the product. They found a surprise right away when the product was first tested, said White. “We expected a strength of 10-15 foot pounds, but we got 60,” he said.

The first electrospinner was developed on site at a cost of about $200, said White. A much larger one is in its design phase, in conjunction with an effort to create industrial partnerships for large-scale manufacturing.

The first strategic partner AAI made was with what was then the Elmer’s adhesives company in Westerville, Ohio, before Elmer’s was sold and moved.

Dana Conover was AAI’s contact at Elmer’s, and still helps the local company as a consultant. He was impressed by not only the product but AAI’s team.

“The crew is highly talented and extremely results oriented,” said Conover.  “Kevin's leadership contribution and technical skills continually allows the AAI group to achieve their next level of accomplishment.”

AAI is rapidly moving to that next level, according to White, developing strategic partnerships with manufacturers and printing companies, contacting funders, hiring staff, and building out the lab to create more prototypes.

After several successful rounds of funding, the company has settled into a workforce of about a half dozen full time and several more part time employees. They have just hired their first marketing staff and doubled their space (and looking for more) in the Accelerator.

While gearing AAI up for production, White has found time to act as mentor to several other Akron startups affiliated with either the accelerator or the university.

“The accelerator is a great resource,” said White. “We would not be where we are without them.”

The respect is mutual. “We are excited that this promising technology, developed at The University of Akron, is partnering with the Akron Global Business Accelerator to reach its full commercial potential,” said Terry Martell, chief operating officer of the accelerator.

“It is our hope that this collaborative effort will provide a pathway from the laboratory to the market, retain our extraordinary talent base and stimulate economic growth for our community,” Martell said.

With a breakout product poised to hit the market, with a potential of substantial financial rewards, White is calm and centered in looking forward.

“I am just enjoying helping to put this business together,” said White.