Of the three companies whose products were selected as finalists for the 2018 World Bio Markets Biobased Product of the Year, one may have seemed slightly out of place among the others. World Bio Markets is a leading strategic conference supporting the advancement of a global biobased economy.
The first contender, Stora Enso, is a large pulp and paper manufacturer headquartered in Helsinki, Finland and Stockholm, Sweden, with large-scale operations on four continents. The company has approximately 26,000 employees. Their biobased nominee was an innovative process to harvest lignin from wood fiber to be used as a viable replacement for fossil fuels.
Another finalist, Chemours, is a spin-off from DuPont, with thousands of employees working in “performance chemicals.” Chemours spun off from DuPont in 2015 and was nominated for its plant-based water-repellent fabric.
The third finalist was AURI client Clean Plus, Inc. (CPI), a West Concord, Minnesota, company that has been in operation since 1982 and boasts about a dozen employees. CPI has several divisions that produce and distribute a variety of products, including Drip Trap® Granules, which are made from corn stalks and are used to contain and clean up spills such as chemicals, oil and fuel.
After a two-month evaluation process, a panel of industry expert judges deliberated and decided on the finalists and winners. Submissions from around the world included a process for producing fuel from “fatbergs” floating in sewer systems, bio-based baby toys, innovative uses for lignin and many more.
The glass slipper didn’t quite fit for the small, innovative Minnesota company as Stora Enso walked away with the top award given at the World Bio Markets conference held in March in the Netherlands. However, receiving the runner-up award put CPI in some very elite company and shows that innovation knows no size limitations.
“This happened totally organically,” says CPI President Matt Coy. “We were encouraged to enter our Drip Trap® Granules into the World Bio Markets to bang the drum a little bit about our product. We sent them information about the product’s features and benefits and later found out we were on their short list.”
The patented Drip Trap® Granules are made from corn stover, which has a unique cell structure that allows moisture to pass both into and out of the cell. Stover also contains lignin, which attracts hydrocarbons, the main components of petroleum and natural gas. Hydrocarbons become trapped within the cell wall. These properties make corn stalks an ideal media for capturing and cleaning up spills.
“Corn stover is an abundant, renewable, underutilized, all-natural resource,” says George Coy, CPI founder and CEO. “The granules provide a highly effective, environmentally friendly and economical method for capturing spills from oil, fuel, coolant and other hazardous fluids.”
The granules are USDA certified 100 percent bio-based and have the Federal Bio-Preferred Product designation. The granules are a green alternative to clay-based absorbents and they can absorb six times more oil or chemicals than clay.
“We were going up against some very large companies with highly complex processes,” George Coy says. “Just to be mentioned with those companies makes us feel pretty good. They’ve got thousands of employees, we’re producing the granules with about two and a half positions.”
“It is an innovative product and we’re using an under-utilized resource that we can create some value, not only for the consumer, not only for our little company, but also for the growers involved as well,” Matt Coy says. “So, it feels pretty good to be recognized on a world stage for our little operation here in southeast Minnesota.”
Tucked behind the West Concord, Minnesota grain elevator, Clean Plus, Inc. occupies a building that used to be the local lumberyard. Its unassuming exterior belies an innovative and complex company. The campus is a maze of manufacturing, storage and production facilities indicative of CPI’s diverse product offerings.
CPI was founded in 1982 to market a single brand of hand cleaner–Clean Plus Hand Soap. In 1987, CPI purchased the toll manufacturer that had been producing the soap and moved the manufacturing operation to West Concord. CPI’s chemical division has since grown to become a manufacturing and distribution firm serving national and international markets.
In 1991, CPI founded an auto parts division. CPI developed a line of starter and alternator repair kits under the Victory Lap Brand. The kits are designed for and marketed to do-it-yourself customers through auto parts distributors, retail and mass-merchandiser channels.
CPI later researched and developed a line of cleaning products to remove modern urethane-based adhesive used in auto glass installations. The launch of these products was so successful that CPI now supplies other products for auto glass installers and created a glass division.
CPI also markets high quality, FDA-certified medical-grade gloves to the dental, daycare and emergency medical services and corrections markets.
In 2003, CPI acquired a license from the University of Minnesota to manufacture and market an oil absorbent pad made from corn stalks. The original corn stalk mat had been developed with assistance from AURI and the Natural Resources Research Institute. The absorbent mat hit the market, but the initial company couldn’t translate the technology into a successful business. CPI acquired the technology and began mat production under the brand Drip Trap®.
Shortly after the pad’s launch, customers asked for a granular absorbent with many of the same performance, disposal and ‘green’ characteristics of the Drip Trap® absorbent pad. CPI conducted feasibility studies in partnership with the University of Minnesota – Duluth and AURI to develop a granular product. After identifying a process similar to another, which makes taconite pellets, CPI invested in some large-scale equipment to begin producing the granules. But the system didn’t work on larger scale.
“Scale-up was non-linear,” Matt Coy says.
As many innovative companies do, CPI relied on ingenuity and built their own system to make the granules. Now four years after they were originally introduced, demand for the Drip Trap® Granules is strong and growing. Matt Coy says CPI distributes about two truckloads a month of the bagged, granulated absorbent.
“We’re progressing into larger production and are looking to add shifts. That’s a good thing,” Matt Coy says. “We can hardly pick up the phone and take orders
George Coy says the Drip Trap® Granules are very popular with heavy industry
and even aviation. A major domestic airline uses the granules in their aircraft repair facilities..
Another of CPI’s absorbent products is also a hit with airports. Speedsorb® is a loose, bagged, biodegradable product made from corn stover. Speedsorb contains both fines and longer fibers which are especially effective in quickly absorbing leaks, including aviation fuel spills. George Coy says CPI supplies the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC), which oversees the Minneapolis/St. Paul International airport, with the fast-acting absorbent.“The MAC was very specific about what they wanted,” George Coy says.
“We recognized that what they were buying wasn’t very effective. We knew we could make a product that worked at their price point and it would be better than what they were using.”
“Having a bio-based product is part of their specification, but their number one concern is to stop spills fast since the Minnesota River is very close,” Matt
Matt Coy says CPI is completing their first contract with the MAC and the
company hopes to continue supplying Speedsorb for years to come.
AURI Senior Scientist for Co-Products Alan Doering worked with CPI years ago
developing the proof of concept for their granular process. Given CPI’s 35-year history, Doering says it’s no surprise that CPI is actively investigating the development of new ag-based products.
“Clean Plus, Inc., is very innovative and they have a long history that shows it,” Doering says. “It’s in their DNA.”
AURI is currently working with CPI on additional absorbent forms and blends as well as a potential product for the pet industry. Doering says because of the company’s track record of developing and launching new lines, CPI is well positioned to add additional ag-based products.
“They have the distribution channels, which is key,” says Doering. “They can
move new products into the marketplace fairly quickly because they’re already
in the arena.”
All of the CPI absorbent products are 100 percent biobased certified. The Drip Trap Granules also qualify as a Bio-Preferred Product for government purchase. With consumers increasingly focused on biobased products, Doering says CPI is positioned for success.
“We see continued interest in biobased products and its largely consumer driven, just as it is with food products,” Doering says. “Consumers are looking for more sustainable products and companies like CPI are out there trying to give consumers what they want.”
Being innovative sometimes comes without a roadmap. Matt Coy says CPI has found themselves in that position as they work to develop new products.
“No one has done this before, so the learning curve is steep,” Matt Coy says.
“We’re getting better, we’re adding efficiency and getting more productive.”