Every day, the Wilson football factory in Ada, Ohio, produces about 3,000 footballs, some of which will wind up being used in NFL games.
Yet as the Wilson employees cut out the the leather for the footballs, they also create scrap material that used to be destined for the landfill or an incinerator.
But for the last several years, tens of thousands of pounds of that scrap leather has made its way to a warehouse in Greenfield Corporate Center, where it comprises the raw material for an innovative Lancaster startup.
Founded in 2013, Sustainable Composites has pioneered a process to create sheets of new leather, which they call Enspire Leather, out of unwanted scraps such as those that didn’t become Wilson footballs.
“It is a product that matches the quality of leather — hide leather — in all characteristics,” says Frank Fox, a former manufacturing industry executive and owner of the former Aussie & the Fox restaurant in Lancaster who founded the company with Tom Tymon.
Sustainable Composites, which recently got a $100,000 investment from Ben Franklin Technology Partners, has been working with a major shoe maker and a furniture manufacturer who they expect will begin using their recycled leather in products next year.
Such a commercial application will signal the end of a long journey toward a viable product while putting the firm itself on the path to financial stability.
“We are now at the finishing stages —almost out of the gate — where we will be self-sustainable,” Fox says.
Finding the method
Fox is a former CEO and Tymon was a chemist at Interface Solutions, a gasket maker spun off in 1999 from Armstrong World Industries. That company now operates as Interface Performance Materials.
Fox and Tymon became interested in manufacturing recycled material when they were at Interface Solutions. After they retired, they founded Sustainable Composites and began tackling the technical challenges of recycling leather.
“Invention takes a long time and Mother Nature didn’t yield her secrets easily,” Fox says. “It is just now at the point this year where we have a product that meets the requirements.”
Sustainable Composites got to the point where they now have a commercially viable product by working backward. They started with what they knew about papermaking machines and then considered how those machines might be used to make sheet leather from recycled leather scraps.
Since paper is made from moistened wood pulp, Fox and Tymon first investigated how to turn leather into the proper kind of fuzzy pulp, before figuring out the right chemical solution for a slurry that could be spread onto a papermaking machine.
“Every step of the process really required invention,” Tymon said.
Simply grinding the leather tended to just create dust, so they had to develop a process that could result in a spongy, cottonlike material which could be effectively used to make the slurry that constitutes their leather.
“We’ve hit a lot of what seemed to be insurmountable problems, particularly in the processing area,” Fox said. “It’s a new material, it doesn’t behave.”
They eventually discovered the right combination, patenting aspects of the process that could produce new leather on papermaking equipment by used unwanted scraps.
“Treasure from trash,” Fox says.
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Instead of making the products themselves, Tymon and Fox hope to sell their method to a variety of manufacturers. Consequently, the Sustainable Composites headquarters at 1919 Old Homestead Lane operates as a research center that has only six employees, including Fox and Tymon.
One section of the headquarters is the lab, another is stacked with bags the size of large hay bales that are filled with the scrap leather and the cottonlike leather pulp it gets turned into.
The company works with several plants in upstate New York to whom it will ship the building blocks of its leather along with instructions for how to create it, a process Tymon and Fox liken to the formula for Coca-Cola.
For manufacturers, using the recycled leather can offer a savings of up to 20 percent, Tymon says.
With a prominent shoemaker and a furniture maker slated to begin making products with Enspire next year, the company expects to start being able to break even, although they are in the midst of one more round of fundraising.
“This has been an expensive journey,” says Fox who estimates it’s taken $3.2 million to get to this point. That amount includes personal loans and investments as well as $700,000 from private investors and $759,000 from institutions.
Fox says an eventual sale of the company is one possible endgame that could recoup that investment while allowing him to focus on philanthropy.
In the meantime, Fox and Tymon continue to work on their commercial product, which offers a unique social benefit.
“This is a new industry, it is an industry that is innovative and it’s meeting the sustainable needs of the country, and it’s being backed by local people,” Fox says.