White Takes Innovative Research from Beckman to Start-up Company

L to R: Gerald Wilson, Scott White and Magnus Andersson
L to R: Gerald Wilson, Scott White and Magnus Andersson

Autonomic Materials Inc., a company which grew out of the work of Beckman Institute researchers, is turning discovery into commercial applications.

Evans joins AMI as CEO

Larry Evans
Larry Evans

It was a little over a year ago, on Aug. 1 2007, that the eight-lane Interstate 35W bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis collapsed, killing 13 people and bringing America's ailing infrastructure into the spotlight.

Beckman Institute researcher Scott White had two interests in the disaster: one a former postdoctoral colleague of his lived in Minneapolis, and two, he knew there was a way to prevent such tragedies in the future.

White and research partners Nancy Sottos and Jeff Moore of the Autonomous Materials Systems group have been pioneers in the area of self-healing materials, working on systems that can be incorporated into products such as paint to self-repair damage like cracks. A faculty member in the Department of Aerospace Engineering, White's goals for the technology are what any engineer would want: to see it used in the real world. After seeing the bridge collapse, White checked on the welfare of his former colleague and then he began to think about the contribution self-healing materials could make in fixing our country's infrastructure problems.

What we want is to develop a suite of products in the coating space so that we can tackle almost any sort of coating out there and provide self-healing technology to that.
- Scott White

"That bridge collapse was caused by corrosion," White said. "And we have coatings that we could be coating bridges with that would extend their lifetime by 20 years or more and we're not using it. The result is that we've got a failing infrastructure. A news piece came out this week about $140B worth of bridge repairs are needed right now and every day we wait that cost goes up."

White, Sottos and Moore have received worldwide publicity for their self-healing discoveries going back to a 2001 article in Nature. Trying to turn their self-healing concept into a product that could actually go into paint or other coatings and possibly help save lives produced, White said, just one result: "Frustration, because I didn't see the progress in moving this technology from these great labs and writing these great papers and having everybody say this is great to something applied."

So after talking with companies great and small and seeing very slow progress, White decided it was time to take a giant leap of faith. He convinced Sottos, Moore, other colleagues, and others to start their own company. Called Autonomic Materials Inc. (AMI) the company began operations in early 2008 as part of the University of Illinois' EnterpriseWorks business incubator in the Research Park on the south side of campus.

Two former members of the AMS group, Magnus Andersson and Gerald Wilson, were the only employees until July when they hired Larry Evans as the new CEO. Evans comes to the company after a career working for some of the biggest companies in the chemical industry.

AMI joins several Research Park companies with Beckman ties, and looks to maintain its relationship with the Institute where the research started, even as plans are made for a high-flying future.

"When I think about what this company becomes, in my mind it's kind of a dream that it will be the preeminent specialty supplier of these additive type products," said Evans, who most recently was president of a business unit of DSM, a large Dutch-based company specializing in life sciences and materials science products and services.

"When you think of self-healing you will think of AMI," Evans added. "That's the association we'll have in the marketplace. Size-wise, it is a bit early to say, but it will be substantial and, additionally, AMI will always be perceived as a very high quality company - on all fronts. First and foremost, it will be tied to continuing innovation, and that's where the relationship with Beckman is of paramount importance. Having worked in global companies like AstraZeneca, I know that if you don't have a unique, special relationship with (research and technology) so the innovations can flow, you will lose your competitive advantage eventually."

White also has lofty goals for the company.

"I want AMI to be the world leading company in innovation, bar none," he said. "Innovation in how we approach business, how we run the company, in the products that we develop, and the technology behind it. So it cuts across the entire spectrum. I want people to look at AMI and say no one ever did something like that before."

Andersson did a postdoctoral stint before becoming a research scientist in the AMS group. He jumped into the business world with a start-up company because of his belief in the science behind AMI, and because of the opportunity.

"This was the challenge of a lifetime," Andersson said. "You know, it's sink or swim. When I first started there we didn't even know if we could go beyond three months. I've worked at Beckman for a lot of years and given tours and, with Scott, would meet with companies. It's just such a cool technology to be able to take that into the world."

It was his interactions with those outside companies that spurred White into starting his own.

"As Magnus indicated we talked to lots of companies, investment groups, venture capitalists, over the years," he said. "If I could sum up my experience over that five-year timetable it would be frustration. I want to go out to Lowe's or wherever and see a self-healing adhesive or paint. And it's frustrating not to see this make it there because it works.

"In having this experience of talking to very large corporations who have R&D money for development and even smaller companies who are looking for a competitive edge and want to team up with us, what I found was the mode of introducing new technology into the 21st Century marketplace is spinning out a start-up company, demonstrating the technology, producing a product, and then all of a sudden they take you seriously. So I finally said I'm going to do it or it's not going to be done."

With their new CEO in place, AMI is in the process of demonstrating the technology to interested companies. Potential applications could be as an anti-corrosive additive for large steel structures or, eventually, coatings for consumer products.

"Corrosion prevention is a huge marketplace and then there are subsets of that as well," Evans said. "Initial applications will focus on high value assets like bridges, oil platforms, supertankers - substantial investments that are also not easy to re-coat and where lengthening the time between re-coating would bring actual value to customers."

"What we want is to develop a suite of products in the coating space so that we can tackle almost any sort of coating out there and provide self-healing technology to that," White added.

White said the Beckman Institute was a key component in the company's creation and its future.

"I want to make sure the Beckman Institute gets the credit for being supportive of me in doing this endeavor," White said. "We have a facility-use agreement (at Beckman) that allows us to come up and use equipment. They are very supportive. The link to the Beckman gives AMI immediate credibility out there."