Allentown Economic Development Corporation

Monthly Archives: September 2016

Who to know at the Bridgeworks Enterprise Center: Zzyzx Polymers by Karen Campbell

Experts say that for a startup to be successful, it first needs to identify an unmet market need and develop a unique solution with a compelling value proposition. And that is exactly what Bridgeworks Enterprise Center client Zzyzx Polymers has been doing for the past year.

An estimated 32 million tons of plastics are discarded each year in the U.S. alone, and less than 10% are recycled. Zzyzx (pronounced “ziz-iks”) identified that as an unmet need and developed a process that will increase those recycle rates by taking challenging waste streams, such as plastic films and mixed plastics that cannot be recycled today, and making recycled plastic pellets for its customers to use in creating molded products that reuse the recycled plastic. This will reduce plastic waste going into landfills and incinerators, and also save energy and natural resources.

But Zzyzx’s story didn’t start with that ideal picture. CEO Mike Janse, a business executive and engineer who gained experience with advanced materials startups while working in the venture capital industry, explains that the reality of a startup includes many steps and a lot of work before commercial launch.

Their founding team started with a promising but unproven technology created at Northwestern University. From there they formed a company, licensed the technology, identified a manufacturing location, demonstrated the technology, obtained significant funding from the National Science Foundation to fund pre-commercial development, built the team, and now are completing process development and scale-up.

Mark Tapsak, the company’s Chief Science Officer, is a recycling industry expert with a doctorate in polymer science from the University of South Carolina. He has authored 50 issued patents and has extensive corporate, consulting, and academic experience as Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Bloomsburg University.

Tapsak explained that there are two key aspects of Zzyzx’s technology that comprise its unique solution. “First, our process can deal with mixed or contaminated plastics whereas other processes require pure and clean single plastic materials. It is too costly and labor intensive to separate and clean plastics, and many can’t be feasibly separated. Second, our process can improve the final recycled plastic properties by using additives that enhance performance properties of the resulting recycled material.” Examples include stiffening with cellulose from recycled cardboard, and stabilization from oxidation with the addition of grape seeds. Zzyzx has demonstrated its ability to process mixed materials by recycling the plastic cup, coffee grounds, and foil of single-use coffee pods altogether.

One trend in plastics is the increased use of multi-laminate films that layer different types of plastics and other materials like aluminum film together. Food brands can save packaging and shipping cost using these materials for packaging applications like soup packages but have been hesitant because they would be moving from recyclable materials like metal cans to plastics that can’t be recycled. Zzyzx’s process solution could turn that packaging approach into a “green” solution.

Zzyzx was thrilled to find Bridgeworks and to be accepted into the incubator program. “We searched far and wide for an industrial space that would accommodate a startup,” said Janse. “We could find 50,000 sq. ft. facilities that were too big and we couldn’t afford, and 2,000 sq. ft. facilities that had only office environments. But Bridgeworks provides industrial facilities under 5,000 sq. ft. with the services, we needed as a start-up.”

When asked about the company’s unusual name, Janse explained that the founders had come up with several names, but all were taken. Recognizing they would no doubt be changing the company’s name in the future anyway, they selected an obscure road name. Zzyzx Road runs along the Mojave National Preserve in California and is familiar only to people who drive between Los Angeles and Las Vegas and have seen the road’s exit sign. And indeed, the name Zzyzx was available.


Beyond Bridgeworks: How Incubator Graduates Have Thrived – Demco Automation

The year 1989 was an important one for both the Bridgeworks Enterprise Center in Allentown and Demco Automation because it was the year that both were founded. And it wouldn’t be long before the two would be connected – the former as a manufacturing business incubator, and the latter as an incubator program client.

How it started

img_0956Founder Dave Duemler created Demco Automation to develop and build custom automated manufacturing systems for automotive, electronics, defense and industrial clients, as well as clients in the life sciences industry like medical devices, pharmaceutical and biotech.

It continues to build systems not only for local companies but also companies across the United States, Caribbean, Mexico, and the Pacific Rim. Robotics, material handling, motion control, and vision system are just some of the technologies they develop to make production lines more accurate and efficient.

Time of transition

After Dave’s untimely passing, Stephen Maund, Director of Engineering and Manufacturing at the time, put together an acquisition of the company in 2010. The company has stayed in the greater Lehigh Valley region and is currently located in Quakertown.

Today, Maund is President and CEO of Demco, employs a staff of 15 technicians and engineers, and has doubled revenues since 2012. Inc. magazine listed the company in the Inc. 5000 Fastest Growing Private Companies in 2014, one of only eight Pennsylvania manufacturers to make the list that year.

“We turn around most of our custom automated manufacturing systems in 14-26 weeks from the time we receive a client’s order to the date it ships,” said Maund. “ We go onsite to install the system, conduct a Site Acceptance Test, provide training, and offer ongoing service and support after the equipment is running in production. We provide our customer with a high-quality and cost-effective design that maximizes their return on investment for years to come. Because of our emphasis on providing highly reliable automation, we’ve built a loyal customer base with a significant portion of our programs being repeat business from existing clients. Our success has everything to do with our very talented and experienced team.”

“Even though Steve has a highly technical background, he really understands how to grow sales and drive the company towards profitability,” explained Allentown Economic Development Corporation Program Manager Anthony Durante. “He is a talented leader because he understands both sides of the equation of that makes a technical business successful – product and sales.”

The Bridgeworks influenceimg_7762

While Demco Automation graduated from the Bridgeworks incubation program almost 20 years ago in 1997, it was during its time there that it started to provide custom turnkey automated systems, which later evolved into the proprietary Demco Wedge Base Machine Chassis and patented its technology. This platform is a key element to Demco’s business today due to its flexible design, ability to be customized for clients, and reused for many years, thereby significantly reducing obsolescence that manufacturers see with competitors’ systems.

“I think the time we spent in the Bridgeworks incubation program was critical for developing the internal infrastructure that turned Demco into a viable business,” Maund said.

Another key factor that helped Demco grow was its relationship with the Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Northeastern Pennsylvania. It received a grant in 1997 at a critical time in the development of the Wedge. More recently, it received a BFTP grant to implement enterprise resource planning software (ERP) so that Demco could better manage the backend of its business like accounting, inventory, and other aspects of operations within the company.

Keeping it local

Maund believes in keeping things local as much as possible to support other local businesses.

  • Demco has done work with current Bridgeworks client JH Plastics, which made panels for the guard system on a production line currently in development at Demco’s plant.
  • He works with Lehigh Career and Technical Institute to find students about to graduate who might become machinists in his shop.
  • Whenever possible the company uses local service providers, including lawyers, accountants, and banks.
  • Several of their clients are from the region too. For C.F. Martin & Co. (Martin Guitar) it developed both headstock and fingerboard processing cells, and for one of the largest U.S. defense companies it creates automated equipment for defense systems. Demco also developed numerous assembly systems for Lutron Electronics, and has more than a decade-long relationship with multiple medical device manufacturers in surgical instruments and dental products.

Giving back by helping today’s startups

Maund also believes in giving back to the community and serves on the Allentown Economic Development Corporation’s Advisory Committee, helping to guide the organization’s future growth and expansion.

“I want Demco to give back to today’s entrepreneurs with the same type of assistance we received during our time at Bridgeworks,” Maund said. “I’m happy to mentor the startups and offer my insights to assist them as they grow.”

The road ahead

When looking down the road the next few years, Maund says the keyword is “strategy.”

“Demco continues to expand by developing new partnerships as well as standard products and technology. We also need to continue cultivating our relationships with our long-term customers each year in addition to earning new client business on a regular basis. This will enable us to increase our revenues while remaining efficient in our manufacturing operations.”

“The future is bright for industrial automation, and we need to position ourselves as a key player. Manufacturing processes are becoming more and more complex, and require our offerings to be successful.”

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