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An Akron startup uses electrostatically-spun fibers in a new adhesive.
I bet you have a lot of photos and posters that never see the light of day. Finding the right frame and the right spot to put a nail in the wall is an undertaking. I’ve resorted to command strips or tape. But when it comes to taking down the artwork, there’s always sticky-tape residue leftover, or it’s impossible to remove the command strip from the photo, or both. I’ve long wished there were a way to do this without all the holes in the wall or the tackiness of tape.
Enter Akron Ascent Innovations, a start-up founded by University of Akron faculty.
They’ve created a “dry adhesive” that can adhere to most hard surfaces, like drywall, glass and steel. There’s no glue involved and no sticky residue left over to damage to walls.
“It’s non-sticky, high-strength and removable,” says Akron Ascent Innovations chief operating officer Kevin White.
This dry adhesive, ShearGrip, is created by electrostatically spinning microscopic threads onto a surface. It emulates the way that geckos and spiders, both of which have microscopic hairs on their feet, are able to climb almost anything.
In the electrostatic spinning process, an electrical charge is applied to a liquid polymer mixture and spun. The nanometer-sized and electrically charged polymer threads that result from this spinning are attracted to a grounded surface with a direct conductive path to the earth. Because of this, the threads can be applied to any object that comes between them and a grounded surface.
These infinitesimally small threads create a lot of surface area, making it easy to stick two-dimensional works with a ShearGrip backing to anything flat and vertical.
And while this dry-adhesive tech can resist a lot of downward pull, it’s quite easy to peel off.
After launching online in December 2018, Akron Ascent now offers a number of products with their ShearGrip technology, including the “Pinless” line, a series of products including inkjet and laser printer-friendly photo paper, bulletin and dry erase boards with the ShearGrip backing.
Electrostatically-spun fibers have been around since the first half of the 20th century, when they were used in smoke-filtering masks. But no one thought to use the process to create an alternative to wall hangings or tape — until UA professor Dr. Shing-Chung “Josh” Wong took a close look at electrostatically-spun fibers and thought, “‘That looks like a gecko’s foot,’” says COO Kevin White.
It was a perfect marriage of the university’s biomimicry and electrostatic spinning research. Biomimicry is the emulation of natural processes in the design of artificial materials.
Dr. Wong filed a patent for an electrostatically spun dry adhesive and published a paper on the adhesive properties of the threads. He also teamed up with the University of Akron’s Dr. Barry Rosenbaum, a senior fellow at the University of Akron Research Foundation who focuses on the commercialization of university research.
In 2012, Dr. Rosenbaum and Dr. Wong founded Akron Ascent Innovations. Dr. Rosenbaum is now CEO and president of the company, while Dr. Wong is the chief technology officer.
Akron Ascent Innovations has received federal, state, and private funding, including more than $1.25 million in grants from the National Science Foundation over the last six years. One of those grants required Akron Ascent Innovations to partner with an established company that would support its product development. The company developed a relationship with Velcro Companies — yes, that Velcro, the patenter of the ubiquitous Velcro fastener.
The Velcro partnership has proven a valued resource, both financially and in access to industry expertise. But it also helps to be associated with the University of Akron.
The reputation of UA’s polymer science, mechanical engineering and biomimicry programs and its commitment to commercial application of research meant that other companies took Akron Ascent Innovations seriously and were willing to offer feedback and guidance, COO Kevin White says.
Akron Ascent Innovations plans to gradually scale up its production of ShearGrip products. They’ve paired with a local manufacturer, who they declined to name, and have ambitious plans for their dry adhesive.
Eventually, they hope to have ShearGrip products on the shelves of stores like Michaels, Joann Fabrics, and Walmart.
Other potential opportunities, such as selling ShearGrip tech to FedEx as an alternative to packaging tape, haven’t worked.
“They weren’t interested in the least in an easy-to-open and easy-to-reapply adhesive that would make tampering difficult to detect,” admits Kevin. “That was the only real hard ‘No’ we’ve got.”
Kevin, whose education includes a Ph.D from Texas A&M University in mechanical engineering and a postdoctoral fellowship at the International Institute for Carbon-Neutral Energy Research, rejects being labeled an entrepreneur. “I have no interest in making stuff just to sell it,” he says.
“But I am interested in bringing something new to the market, a product that changes people’s lives that can fund further research and development,” he adds. “There’s thousands of interesting materials coming out of university labs and not enough commercial application being explored to bring them to the average consumer.”
This story is part of The Devil Strip’s Akropreneurs series, which is made possible by the Burton D. Morgan Foundation and the Fund for Our Economic Future.
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