Three entrepreneurs from three different parts of the country have come together in Allentown to pioneer a manufacturing process that could revolutionize the plastics and recycling industries.
Mike Janse, Mark Tapsak and Phil Brunner are the founders of Zzyzx Polymers LLC (pronounced /ziziks/), a company that is commercializing licensed intellectual property from Northwestern University in Illinois and Bucknell University in Pennsylvania in order to produce a new type of recycled plastic that can be used to manufacture anything from ballpoint pens to automobile bumpers.
“This is what I call platform technology,” said Tapsak, a chemistry professor at Bloomsburg University who brings the market awareness and production experience to the company.
Janse, of California, is the CEO and Brunner, who is originally from Chicago and earned his doctorate at Northwestern helping to develop SCE, is an inventor and technology specialist.
“It has the ability to literally change the way people think about plastics,” Tapsak explains. “It can be huge.”
The three men came together a year ago and settled on Allentown and Pennsylvania as a manufacturing base because Brunner and his wife wanted to locate near her Stroudsburg home and Tapsak had experience with the Ben Franklin Technology Partners (BFTP), which has accepted Zzyxx as a partner.
In addition to the funding and support from both BFTP and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the partners say the City of Allentown and Allentown Economic Development Corp. (AEDC) have been invaluable resources as they get the business underway. Because of the enormous power demands created by the new process, AEDC is working with Zzyzx to increase the electricity input to the Bridgeworks Enterprise Center.
“We have a small footprint of only 3,000 square feet but the power requirements of a 60,000 square foot facility,” said Tapsak. “That’s where Bridgeworks has been a great match. They are not only splitting the cost of the electrical upgrades with us, they came up with terms that wrapped our part of the costs into the lease payments.”
AEDC Program Manager Anthony Durante said the upgrades will allow Bridgeworks to help future tenants, as well. “It’s a permanent improvement to the building that will benefit everyone in the long-run,” Durante said. “Zzyzx is probably one of the first companies that we have had in a long time that is a good target for equity investors. They are also a good bellwether company for how we are restructuring the business incubation program and where we want to go with it.”
In addition, Durante said, “These guys have some really interesting technology that can have a big impact on the plastics industry.”
That technology, according to Tapsak, is based on a process known as Continuous Mechanochemical Compatibilization (CMC). Unlike traditional plastics recycling, where the original materials must be meticulously cleaned and separated before being melted and molded into new products, CMC is a high-shear process that first pulverizes and then combines the materials at the molecular level. The benefit, he said, is that manufacturers can take the product and remold the material into items that have good mechanical properties, as long as it does not have to be transparent.
“Literally, the sky is the limit. Anything now made out of plastic can be recycled into other products, as long as it doesn’t have to be clear,” Tapsak explains.