‘Our polymer will degrade 100% in two months,’ claims Exotech CEO Arie Axlerad.
When Arie Axlerad wants to make a point, he takes a spoonful of the super absorbent polymer developed by his company, Exotech Bio Solutions, and eats it. It’s a persuasive demonstration, because Exotech asserts that its new polymer, which can be used for anything from biodisposable ‘green’ diapers to a new bandage for burn victims, is 100 percent biodegradable and biocompatible.
This is a significant breakthrough. In the diaper industry, today’s diapers are impregnated with a synthetic powder made from acrylic acid, a petroleum product that is known to be hazardous to humans, to absorb liquids. The same chemical was used on tampons in the 1980s and led to the deaths of 14 women from toxic shock syndrome. Since then, it has been prohibited in tampon use. There are now many regulations to control the use of this chemical in diapers. First, only 14 grams of acrylic acid can be used per diaper, and secondly it is separated from the baby’s bottom by a plastic coating.
The other problem with this material, which is in effect the most significant element of the diaper, is that it is not biodegradable. Acrylic acid takes over 500 years to degrade. In Israel alone, 700 million diapers are sold a year, while in the US, 22 billion are sold. That’s a lot of harmful chemicals lying around our garbage dumps.
Exotech, an Israeli company based in Kiryat Gat, claims that its unique new polymer, a macromolecular compound called ethylene-bis-stearamide (EBS), is not only as absorbent as its rival acrylic acid, but it is also cheaper, more available, and safer for both humans and the environment.
“Our polymer will degrade 100% in two months,” Axlerad, the company’s 31-year-old marketing director, told ISRAEL21c.
EBS consists of two main ingredients, gelatine and stearine – a petroleum product. Both these compounds are environmentally friendly, according to Axlerad, and both dissolve in water.
The Exotech polymer can be added to a diaper in the same way that acrylic acid is added, which means that nothing on the production process needs to be altered.
Development of the EBS polymer has already been completed, and Exotech, which is the only company in the world making biodegradable absorbent powder suitable for use in diapers, is now preparing for production. The company plans to begin by building a small production line in Israel that will produce five tons of EBS polymer a month, some 70,000 diapers. This plant, which will cost about $2.5 million to build, could generate sales of $10 million in the first year.
The company is also looking to sign a cooperation agreement with one of the large international diaper manufacturers to begin worldwide distribution. Exotech is now in negotiations with several leading diaper makers, including one UK manufacturer, and hopes to begin building its production line in the next six months and to begin production before the end of 2006.
Interest in this product is high, says Axlerad. “There are many governmental incentives to switch to biodegradable products, and at the same time public opinion is very much in favor of this. In many countries, people are so desperate to find an environmentally better solution that they are returning to cloth diapers. It’s not that people want to go back to cloth. If they have a real alternative they will switch to it.”
The potential of Exotech’s polymer does not stop at diapers, however. Exotech is also exploring several other exciting new areas. The first is a new super-absorbent bandage for wounds, particularly wounds such as burns, ulcers, or pressure wounds, which excrete a great deal of liquid or blood.
“These bandages normally have to be changed every couple of hours,” says Axlerad. “Our material will absorb the liquids and slow down the rate at which you need to change bandages.” Instead of every couple of hours, patients will only need bandages changed every two to three days, enabling them to be released home in the meantime.”
In addition, he says, the bandage will remain damp so that it will not stick to the wound. Another major advantage is that healing compounds, like antibiotics or collagen, can be added to the polymer to speed up the healing process. This is now being tested at Rambam Medical Center in Haifa.
Exotech is now negotiating with potential strategic partners to help it reach the market in this sector. “Once a company is interested, we can have this product out on the market in a matter of months,” says Axlerad.
A third area now being explored is water storage for agriculture. As drought, and water shortages affect an increasing number of areas around the world, it is becoming increasingly imperative to use water wisely. Exotech has developed a special polymer derivative that can be incorporated into the top five to 10 centimeters of topsoil to hold water, and prevent it from evaporating or disappearing into the ground.
“Some 60-80% of water used in irrigation is lost this way,” says Axlerad. “Our solution can help maintain this water in the earth. Once our polymer reaches maximum capacity, say if there is a sudden rain storm, then the rest of the water will just seep down into the ground.”
Tests conducted by Exotech show that plants can absorb the EBS-impregnated water. The Exotech polymer has been developed to degrade gradually over one season. “We can control the rate of degradation to make the product last longer, but we don’t see any advantage to that,” admits Axlerad.
This product has now been finalized and is ready for testing. Exotech is in negotiations with Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, which is interested in carrying out field trials of the new material.
Exotech was founded in November 1999 by Mendy Axlerad, a former Israel Air Force engineer and Arie’s 58-year-old father. The polymer was developed by two scientists from Rumania who were experts in polymer research with some 100 patents for polymers already behind them. They approached Axlerad to ask him to commercialize their idea for a biodegradable polymer for the diaper industry. Investment came initially from the founders, but in 2002, and 2003, other angel investors pumped funds into the company and the Office of the Chief Scientist also offered a grant of $800,000. Today a total of $2.5-3 million has been invested in Exotech.
The company remains small, with just five or six employees. As a result, it is trying to focus its energies: First on the diaper market, and then on the other sectors. Once these have started moving, there are still more applications in the pipeline. These include humidity control for boxes and shipping, flooding control, a polymer to control oil spills, and even weight loss – if you swallow an Exotech pill and drink water, a harmless, degradable jello ball will inflate in the stomach. Potentially, this could help give dieters the sensation that their stomachs are full.
In two to three years, Arie Axlerad even predicts that Exotech could develop a polymer that can be used to deliver drugs to the human body. “By controlling the rate of degradation, we can control the rate that the medicine reaches patients,” he explains.
The demonstration where he swallows the material he manufactures begs the question: what does the EBS polymer, which looks a little like a grain of salt, taste like? “If you add vodka, it tastes of vodka,” Axlerad replies. “It depends what you put with it.”