Lab Canada

Basic research leads to new material

A fusion of basic chemistry research by two scientists in two fields has led to the successful commercialization of a revolutionary new orthopaedic cast product.

The new material, called Woodcast, is a specially formulated wood composite material that is manufactured from clean wood chips and biodegradable plastic. It is produced by Onbone, a start-up company headquartered in Helsinki, Finland.

Woodcast recently won a prestigious innovation award – the €20,000 Chemical Industry Innovation Award, which is presented every two years by the Chemical Industry Federation of Finland.

The environmentally friendly and easy-to-use material is a thermoplastic that is pliable at 60ºC and rigid at 40ºC. It can be warmed without water so unlike plaster doesn’t create a mess, won’t break, is non-toxic and can be x-rayed. When warm it can be easily cut with scissors and moulded by hand. The researchers say it is the first new casting material to be invented in decades.

The material was based on chemistry research conducted at the University of Helsinki and is an excellent example for the potential of commercializing basic research.

Onbone’s two partners, CEO Petro Lahtinen and R&D manager Antti Pärssinen, were researchers in the university’s department of chemistry. In 2005, the two men had just completed their PhDs – Dr Lahtinen’s was on the application of oxidation catalytes to cellulose production, and Dr Pärssinen’s on polymerization catalytes. The latter developed a new polymerization method that enabled very easy tailoring of biodegradable polymers.

Dr Pärssinen had some biodegradable plastics left over from his research; Dr Lahtinen some wood chips, left over from the cellulose bleaching project. They began to mix the ingredients together and to manufacture various combinations of wood composite material. After a year of this experimentation, they had produced enough samples, and started to consider where their new wood composite material could be used.

 Their aim, says Dr Lahtinen, was to find a perfect combination of melt viscosity and rigidity at body temperature. He says they made hundreds of polymers to find one with exactly the right properties.

 Initially they tried to create a bone cement product, called Biocement, which is still under development. The goal is to combine biodegradability and mechanical strength so the product can be used to anchor screws in weak bones.

 When the cement was mixed with the wood chips, he says they received surprising results – the mechanical strength increased, density was reduced, heat capacity and conductivity were lowered, and it was more easily mouldable by hand.

 The two scientists decided to focus their commercialization efforts on developing this new material rather than the bone cement product because, as he says: “We realized it was much easier to commercialize this product than something that goes inside the human body.”

 It took five years to commercialize Woodcast. The partners set up Onbone in 2008, and it currently has six employees, with product manufacturing and distribution outsourced. The product itself launched in Finland and Scandinavia in 2010, and plans are underway for future launches in Russia and the US.

 Dr Lahtinen adds that he thinks there are opportunities for new businesses based on basic research. “There’s a lot of unused potential in the research carried out at universities,” he says. “These jewels should be actively sought, productized and commercialized for the global market along with investors.”

 This article originally appeared in the August 2012 issue of Lab Product News.