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What’s the Problem?

July 3, 2013

Putting the cart before the horse.

By Laura Buenning

You’ve probably heard the expression “putting the cart before the horse.” But what about “having a solution before identifying the problem?” It’s not very catchy, but it reflects the conundrum UT chemistry professor Jimmy Mays is dealing with these days.

Mays’ more than twenty-year fascination with the molecular structure of thermoplastic elastomers (TPEs) has led to the discovery of an extra stretchy material with elasticity two to three times greater than the best material on the market. The catch is that the material is so advanced; there is no known market for it–yet.

In 2000, Mays teamed up with Roland Weidish from Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute and Sam Gido from the University of Massachusetts because they wanted to “understand how molecular architecture affects the performance of TPEs.” The result was a molecular shape that allows the material to stretch fifteen times its original length, yet recover almost completely when the stretching force is removed.

Last fall, the unique polymer architecture became the center of a $600,000 grant from the National Science Foundation’s Partnerships for Innovation program, which encourages commercialization of new technology discovered through university research.

“Right now [this] technology is in a very early stage,” says Joy Fisher, Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation faculty mentor and co-principal investigator on the project. “We’ve got some prototype material with incredible characteristics, but we don’t know what kind of problem it solves. And if it doesn’t solve a problem it will never make it to the market.”

Jimmy Mays

Jimmy Mays

Mays says a growing number of applications for TPEs exist today. You’ve likely seen them as the “stretchy, rubbery material used to affix objects to magazine covers.” They also are found in a wide variety of other products–surgical tubing, shoe soles, soft-touch bicycle handlebars, soft-handled toothbrushes, and medical adhesives. TPEs are also finding their way into inflatable ear buds for digital hearing aids, exfoliating skin peels, and coronary stents.

Thanks to the NSF grant, the responsibility of identifying applications for this new technology, known as Superelastomer”, now lies with an interdisciplinary team of UT students consisting of Mike Koban and Logan Howell (both dual MS/MBA students), Andrew Goodwin (chemistry graduate student), and Ashley Hodges, Andrew Moore, Catherine Rolen, and Natalie Lubbert from the College of Law.

The students are using a Business Model Canvas method to quickly assess whether potential applications for the material can actually make it as commercial products. “You’ve got to find a market where there’s a real pain point with customers willing to pull money out of their pockets in exchange for the product,” Fisher says.

The first step is preparing a hypothesis–a value proposition–of what the team thinks customers will gain by using the product. Then they test their theory with real customers by developing a value chain consisting of nine interrelated elements.

The process involves determining who will make the raw material, who will process the raw material, whether a distribution network will be necessary, and who will retail the product.

“We have to identify potential customers in every single slice of that go-to-market value chain and figure out, ‘can we make something that will work its way through that chain and into the hands of the market at a price the customer will pay and we make money?’” Fisher says.

One possibility that came to light early was in the medical tubing industry.

“Superelastomer” material is stronger, retains its strength, recovers quickly, and doesn’t kink, which is one problem with medical tubing. And as we were going through this process we also found that medical tubing is made with PVC, which uses chlorine as a precursor and is bad for the environment,” Fisher explains. “But is it enough of a problem to keep people in the medical tubing industry up at night? If not, then this is not the right start-up market.”

At this point, every phone call provides new information for the team. “We always try to have the chemistry students on the line with us. That’s when it works the best, because a customer might ask questions that our business students can’t answer. At the same time, the technical team can hear first hand from the customers what is and is not important to them,” Fisher adds.

“Chemistry students like this kind of project,” Mays says. “So much of chemistry is about making and characterizing a target molecule, writing a paper on it, and moving on to something else. This project does all that but then takes them into the real world where they work with people from business; they get pulled into meetings with professional investors. It opens them up to what it’s like to start a small business.”

As the team continues to gather vital information, any decisions they make will have a profound impact on the Superelastomer” commercialization effort. “This is not a simulation,” Fisher says. “They are expected to come up with the right solution to the problem of finding the right problem for the solution.”