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Young entrepreneur joins green accelerator to produce new material for shielding surgeonsfrom harmful X-rays

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Anna Brown holds a block of bismuth. As he company Stark Street Materials becomes part of the  Cascadia CleanTech Accelerator, Brown hopes to use bismuth instead of lead in X-ray shielding garments.

It's not easy being an entrepreneur — let alone one working in a non-traditional field like clean technology. Add to the executive leadership and sales roles the mindset of a scientist and you have a high-octane recipe for burnout.

Anna Brown is learning all about this, but in typical left-brain fashion she is getting it all planned out. The founder of two-person firm Stark Street Materials, the material scientist has just been included in the Cascadia CleanTech Accelerator.

The accelerator is spread between Oregon, Idaho and Washington and is hosted by VertueLab of Portland and the CleanTech Alliance of Seattle. It will be a mostly virtual experience, with the cohort meeting on video conference weekly and rarely in person. (see sidebar)

The goal is "helping early-stage cleantech startups speed their technologies to market through curriculum, mentorship and business connections." Eight companies make up the incubator. They will receive cleantech-specific training in business planning, customer discovery, manufacturing and planning for environmental and social sustainability over 15 weeks starting June 24.

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Anna Brown holds a piece of solid bismuth. Brown hopes to use bismuth instead of lead in x-ray shielding garments.

Brown study

Brown is taking a calculated leap into entrepreneurism. (However this is not her firm's first award. In January, the economic development agency Business Oregon awarded Stark Street Materials a grant of $88,000. This was part of its Enhanced Phase 0 Program, which gave similar awards to 16 other companies that have good scientific ideas, from energy to medicine, that could be turned into a commercial products.)

The kind of companies that have been in the incubator before include Wheyward Spirit of Eugene, which converts excess whey and water from cheese making into vodka. Another is Sironix Renewables of Seattle which makes plant-based surfactants (grease busters) for making greener, plant-based soaps.

Brown has an idea for a useful material but is in a race against the clock to turn it into a commercial product. Usually the base metal lead is used to block X-rays and keep people who work with them safe from their carcinogenic effects. For example, dental assistants duck behind a lead-lined wall when X-raying a patient's teeth, and surgeons wear lead-infused aprons when doing minimally invasive surgery. It is common today for a surgeon to look at real time X-rays as they work (which is called fluoroscopy), but being that close to the X-ray machine every day is hazardous. And even the 10-pound garment they wear for protection often ends up giving them back pain.

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Bismuth in its raw, ground, and particle form.

Bismuth calling

From her studies at Reed College and at Portland State University, where she got her PHD studying nanomaterials, Brown knew that the next element up on the periodic table, Bismuth, did just as a good a job of blocking X-rays and is non-toxic. She set about finding a way to use it, and decided incorporating it into a surgeon's apron or drape would be useful and commercially viable. (Her father-in-law is a surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic, so she had good advice.)

"Bismuth is the active ingredient in Pepto-Bismol, and it is better at shielding radiation and non-toxic," Brown told the Business Tribune. "Toxicity in hospitals is an issue. When you have lead aprons, it eventually escapes at the seams. Not having lead in a hospital would be a good idea."

The lead is contained in a lead salt, usually lead chloride, which is mixed into plastic and extruded into sheets, like a kind of lead vinyl. It then needs layers of fabric to contain it. Aside from not having to worry about bismuth being toxic, it can be put in particle form it can easily be made into thin, lighter sheets.

Tinfoil hats

"I was really looking for non-toxic radiation shielding, and became entirely devoted to creating better shielding materials made from bismuth," she said. "I'm now not aiming at dentists but at surgeons who wear 10 pounds of lead 40 hours a week. They have a lot of spine compression issues."

Shielding for diagnostic X-rays is different from shielding from other electromagnetic waves, such as radiation therapy for cancer or nuclear energy, or even cell phone towers, so she fields a lot of questions from what she calls the "tinfoil hat" brigade.

Bismuth is a shiny white metal, it has a low melting point and when it freezes it expands, so it is often used in solder. It is a by-product of other mining operations. Brown now orders hers from a metals manufacturer in China and pays $10 a kilogram.

She buys in drums of up to 100 kilograms now but if the business takes off she will have to scale up to buying it by the metric ton.

"Because of these fun tariffs I might switch to a Canadian supplier," she says referring to President Trump's trade war with China.

She describes her lab at the Portland State University Business Accelerator building at 2828 S.W. Corbett Ave., as a "Walled-in garage between the boat storage and the toxic chemical storage."

"The biggest challenge for me is I invested a lot in education and hard science, and now I'm switching to being an entrepreneur. It's a big shift in how to think about things."

The accelerator will provide company. "It's nice to know about other people's businesses. Business is a diverse world."

As a Post doc at Oregon State University she did pharmaceutical research which had a different focus and values.

"Your career path is defined by what you want to think about. Being with other entrepreneurs with different sets of values is neat."

Brown really had to rethink her career when she admitted to herself that while publishing peer reviewed academic papers is a great academic ambition, they don't make any money.

"So, you have to make something someone is prepared to pay for." (She still must produce a paper as part of her research.)

Brown is currently making a proof of principle product, something to catch the attention of investors as well as the medical profession. In the accelerator she hopes to learn about energy efficient manufacturing processes, including making a recyclable product.

One of the accelerator organizers has already been helpful, putting Brown in touch with someone in the fabric industry.

"Unless you know how to talk to someone in the industry it's a non-starter." Brown has a hobby craft background (she does quilting), has made recyclable shopping bags, and sold fridge magnets on Etsy under the name Fuzzyfridgeballs. She is also renovating a 1980s recreational vehicle.

Once the company is producing, the garments for surgeons will still be custom fit. Ultimately though, the business model would be to produce the bismuth shield fabric and wholesale it to others to turn into finished products.

PSU patented the material, since it was made under their watch.

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Anna Brown holds a very heavy jar of bismuth in its particle form. As he company Stark Street Materials becomes part of the  Cascadia CleanTech Accelerator, Brown hopes to use bismuth instead of lead in x-ray shielding garments.

Introverts and extroverts

As part of a National Science Foundation innovation core program Brown has been flying around the country going to hospitals and medical equipment suppliers. A common refrain has been that the X-ray shields are too heavy. She's ready to make something.

"I'm not getting a lot of new information. Getting surgeons to talk is difficult because they have to deal with sales people all the time. I have struggled to get them on board."

One mentor gave her some advice, saying that to be a successful entrepreneur, you have to go through periods of extreme introversion as well as extreme extroversion.

"Like, a week in a room alone, then a weekend at a conference talking to people 12 hours a day. I can do that."

One challenge will be getting medical device manufacturers to use a new material. For anything that touches blood, they prefer tried and tested materials. If an X-ray opaque catheter sounds good to a doctor, it still has to get past the medical device corporations.

Brown likes the idea of running a factory and making use of her knowledge, but not a large conglomerate.

"I realized I have a natural business mind. I've been bitten by the startup bug."

And entrepreneurism, like science, has its unknowns.

"I suspect the best application is one I don't know about."

Joseph Gallivan
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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