U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko doesn't have to leave his congressional district to show Washington why funding for research and development is so important to the manufacturing sector.
On the day before Earth Day, Tonko visited Ecovative Design in Green Island, a celebrated manufacturing start-up that was founded in 2007 by two students from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy.
Ecovative Design makes packaging material and insulation from biodegradable materials. The company uses fungi that, when mixed with other vegetative materials like oat hulls and cotton burrs, create a strong, lightweight material. It can be used to replace traditional Styrofoam packaging.
The company, which started in the basement of the RPI Incubator with a handful of employees, now has its own manufacturing facility in Green Island and employs 20 people, with more being hired.
The company has fueled its growth through the federal Small Business Innovation Research program, which is designed to help small companies commercialize their ideas. The company's grants have come through the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency. The NSF grant, awarded in 2010, was for $180,000.
Earlier this month, Ecovative also learned that after eight months of collaboration, computer giant Dell will be using its EcoCradle packaging materials using cotton waste from nearby its Austin, Texas, production facility. Dell already has used bamboo packaging for laptops, and Ecovative's mushrooms are expected to cushion heavy servers.
"Our pilot with Dell marks another important step in our vision to remove environmentally damaging foams from the world's supply chain," Ecovative Chief Executive Officer Eben Bayer wrote on his blog earlier this month when the news was made public.
Tonko toured Ecovative's manufacturing facility along with Laban Coblentz, the chief of staff at RPI, and Dick Frederick, who is an entrepreneur in residence at the school who had been involved in start-up companies in the past.
"What we see here is the product of hard work and enterprise, and the leveraging of federal investments to research a cutting-edge product that has the potential to transform the packaging industry with an enormous environmental benefit," Tonko said. "We must protect these federal investments in new technologies. They are the key to our future economic growth."
Ecovative also has a deal to provide its packaging to Steelcase Furniture in Michigan.
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