Common materials evolve into new products

Minnesota State Roundup

Published July 1, 1993  | July 1993 issue

Two new products, both made from recycled resources, have emerged from south-central Minnesota: a granitelike building material made of newsprint and soy resin, and an erosion-control block composed of old tires.

Environ, a building material that is made from recycled newspaper and local soybeans, was developed by the fledgling Phenix Composites Inc. of Mankato. Somewhat flexible and workable like wood, Environ is three-and- one-half times harder than oak and contains no hazardous or toxic materials. The material can replace wood in construction of furniture, ceilings, walls, counter tops, awards, plaques and signs.

The company expects to have samples of Environ to industry by midsummer and an inventory by fall, according to Scott Taylor, vice president of sales and marketing. Funding for production machinery was obtained through a $1 million grant, the top award from the Alternative Agricultural Research and Commercialization Center, a federal agency that promotes alternative uses of agricultural products.

With 25 employees now, Phenix expects to hire 100 more over the next few years as it reaches full production. In addition to providing new jobs in the area, Environ may benefit local soybean farmers: One bushel of soybeans is used per 22 board feet.

Whereas Environ is intended to ease the depletion of forests and stimulate the farm economy, another Mankato business is out to reduce an unsightly commodity: discarded tires.

Multi Bloc makes machines that form interlocking blocks out of shredded tires. Latex and a hardener are added for adhesive and strength. The Legolike blocks, which come in two sizes, are used along river banks, lake shores and in ravines to control erosion. The larger block weighing 750 pounds uses 40 car tires.

Multi Bloc sells the machinery and license agreements to rubber processing plants, then receives a royalty for each block made. Some municipalities have expressed interest in the equipment; in the United States, 3 billion tires are stockpiled, and 250 million more are generated annually.

The three-year-old company, which expects its crew of 17 to reach 24 during peak production, currently has sales orders for $1.6 million worth of its machines, a figure that is projected to double by year end.

Why both businesses began in Mankato is no mystery to either company. Terry Drews, Multi Block president, says that the city is active in luring small businesses. When Drews sought a location for his business, Mankato responded with equity investment, advice and a year's lease in its small business incubator building.

Further, Mankato State University's influence is woven tightly into the fabric of the business community. Phenix, for example, is one of three spinoffs of Rho Delta, a company formed by a group of Mankato State University professors to market their inventions.

Larry Forsyth, director of planning and development services for the city, says Mankato is experiencing a spurt of commercial growth, mainly in retail and in the expansion of existing companies.

Nettie Pignatello