When Liangbing Hu’s lab in the Center for Materials Innovation announced a breakthrough nanomaterial research using wood, it got a lot of attention in the press. By creatively removing, replacing, or manipulating wood’s lignin content and compressing the remaining cellulose, Hu—Herbert Rabin Distinguished Professor in UMD’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering—invented a supermaterial that could be transparent, or super-strong, or squishy. With possible uses from windows to shock absorbers to perhaps even an alternative to conventional steel, Hu’s superwood got tongues wagging. But how to ride that excitement and potential into real applications?
Amy Gong, a former postdoctoral researcher in Hu’s lab who in 2016 co-founded InventWood with Hu, says founding the company was the easy part. “But there’s so much to do after the lab process. The invention of the tech takes maybe 50 percent, but—as we’re learning—making the material into a real product and to know the industry it might fit into, that’s another 70 percent,” Gong says.
InventWood joined MEIA’s accelerator in January 2021, and is now is in the midst of working on issues that are holding up progress: to figuring out whether and where there is a market for a product, which product to focus on developing, and the right way to develop said product so that the market actually wants to buy it, says MEIA Director Brian Toll.
InventWood differs from other projects in the accelerator in that the company already had a CEO, Josh Cable, who joined the company in 2018, and that Hu and Gong had already accumulated a substantial list of potential customers and considerable commercial interest. “From a materials standpoint, bringing a product to market is not as easy as, say, what a software company would do. Brian and the team at MEIA are helping us hone in the process,” Cable says.
Toll adds he’d like to see more inquiries from professors and researchers interested in potentially commercializing. Because it is funded by the state of Maryland, all of MEIA’s services are free to partners and collaborators.
Investors in the energy industry “may see that you have this great technology and that you might even be able to demonstrate it, but they also want to see that you have the business acumen, the team, the leadership, and other aspects of the company that can make money and a return on their investment,” Wachsman says. “MEIA offers a multi-pronged approach to create the next level of tech, but also brings resources to help that tech stand up to the business end of it as well.”
If you are interested in supporting or mentoring future start-ups, please contact Brian Toll (firstname.lastname@example.org).