Hattiesburg — Last month, a small firm in Mississippi made big waves when it garnered nationwide recognition.
“It is very nice if you can be written up by The New York Times,” said Carl Hagstrom, COO of Hybrid Plastics, which relocated its headquarters from Southern California to Southern Mississippi in the summer of 2004. “We believe the attention provided by the article in The New York Times was favorable to Hybrid Plastics, the University of Southern Mississippi and the state.”
The article by Barnaby J. Feder published February 22, talks about the “huge challenges” in turning nanoscale innovations into profitable businesses. That was a play on words, considering that nanotechnology represents the engineering on a molecular level (a nanometer is about a billionth of a meter) to make products.
The article said that Hybrid Plastics chose to locate in Hattiesburg primarily due to competitive advantages from being located near the University of Southern Mississippi (USM) Polymer Science Research Center.
“Besides offering a bargain-basement location, Hattiesburg lured Hybrid with the promise of a close relationship with the University of Southern Mississippi’s highly regarded polymer chemistry department,” the article said. “Hattiesburg became irresistible when the state promised to make university equipment and laboratory space available at virtually no cost. Lower taxes were a factor, too.”
“We were recruited by about four states and came to Hattiesburg specifically because of USM, the excellence of its polymer science program and the support of Dr. Shelby Thames (USM’s president),” Hagstrom said.
Hagstrom said Hybrid Plastics has pioneered the development of an entirely new chemical technology for plastics. This technology bridges the property space between hydrocarbon-based plastics and ceramics. It imparts new or improved properties to materials through the controlled reinforcement of polymer chains at the molecular level.
“This technology is leading the way to the next generation of plastics,” Hagstrom said.
Hybrid Plastics decision to locate in Hattiesburg also captured the attention of the trade publication, Small Times, Big News in Small Tech, with an article titled, “Boomtown or Boondocks? Nano Firm Tries Hybrid Approach.”
Small Times features editor Jeff Karoub wrote that a company doing business with the then Orange County, Calif.-based Hybrid Plastics Inc. had relocated to Mississippi a few years back and debunked some myths of leaving the riches of the Golden State for the relatively poor Gulf Coast state.
“As Hybrid Plastics looked more closely, it found in one town a high quality of life and a hunger for high technology. Another surprise — and a feature that sealed the deal — was the presence of a first-class center of higher learning,” Karoub said.
The company started production this past October in a 20,000-square-foot former chemical facility located in the Hattiesburg/Forrest County Industrial Park. During this same time period, the Thames administration has been involved in a great deal of controversy, including a backlash from consolidating college departments from nine to five.
“When you are backed up against the wall with declining revenues for your university, you have to make choices that might not be popular with everyone,” Hagstrom said. “But we wholeheartedly support Dr. Thames in his efforts to focus on making the university play a key role in preparing people to compete for jobs in the knowledge economy.”
Hybrid Plastics is involved in a number of innovative research projects. In 2004, it received a grant of $850,000 from the Air Force Missile Defense Agency to develop a low-cost radiation shield.
“As the reliance on space-based devices has grown exponentially, it has produced a pressing need for a low-cost method of protecting them from a wide variety of radiation types,” Hagstrom said. “The limitations of materials and manufacturing methods currently utilized pose major design constraints in this area. Metallized POSS (polyhedral oligomeric silsesquiosane) will be utilized to provide efficient radiation absorptive coatings. These coating marry the beneficial properties of plastics (processability and toughness) with those of ceramics (thermal, chemical and oxidative stability), as well as those of metals (radiation, absorption, catalysis, refractive index and conductivity.”
Hybrid Plastics is also working with Auburn University and ENTECH Inc. to develop the next-generation thin film solar cells and concentrators for NASA.
Hagstrom said the company’s POSS nanomaterials can be used both as direct replacements for hydrocarbon-based materials like paints or as low-density performance additives to traditional plastics.
“They release no VOCs (volatile organic compounds) and, thereby, produce no odor or air pollution,” he said. “They are biocompatible, recyclable, non-flammable, and competitively priced with traditional polymer feedstocks.”
While that and other research and technology project being undertaken by the company are innovative and exciting, Hagstrom said growing the company can be likened to what is required to make a football team successful: A lot of the work is “old fashioned blocking and tackling.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at email@example.com.