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Young entrepreneur joins green accelerator to produce new material for shielding surgeons from harmful X-rays.

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.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.

Meet the inventor

Brown is taking a calculated leap into entrepreneurism. She has an idea for a useful material but is in a race against the clock to turn it into a commercial product.

Traditionally, the base metal lead is used to block X-rays and to 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 — called fluoroscopy — but being that close to the X-ray machine every day is hazardous. And the 10-pound garments they wear for protection often end up giving them back pain.

From her studies at Reed College and at Portland State University, where she got her Ph.D. studying nanomaterials, Brown knew that bismuth was the next element up on the periodic table from lead. Bismuth does just as a good a job of blocking X-rays, and it's non-toxic.

So 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," Brown said. "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.

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

Tinfoil hats

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. Brown said 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 per 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 said, 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," Brown said. "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," she added.

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," she said. "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. (Spoiler alert: She still must produce a paper as part of her research.)

Brown currently is 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 already has been helpful, putting Brown in touch with someone in the fabric industry, she said.

Brown has a hobby craft background — she does quilting — has made recyclable shopping bags and has sold fridge magnets on Etsy under the name Fuzzyfridgeballs. She also is renovating a 1980s recreational vehicle.

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

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

VertueLab to the rescue

VertueLab is upfront about being focused on "reversing the climate crisis by funding and supporting technology innovators and entrepreneurs," said David Kenney, president and executive director of VertueLab.

The cohort keep in touch with their mentors and each other, and follow a curriculum using "webinars," as well as weekly video conferencing and email-like channels. They also will have an assignment most weeks.

On Tuesday, June 25, they will attend a funding boot camp in Seattle to meet experts in funding and research dollars. They are expected to have a polished pitch deck or PowerPoint presentation and a one-pager they can bandy about.

According to Johanna Brickman at VertueLab, the organizers of the Cascadia CleanTech Accelerator asked that these pre-seed stage startups have more than one person, so that they don't suffer burnout. They also looked for a diversity of thought and background.

The startup teams from the 2019 cohort will be part of the CleanTech Innovation Showcase this week in Seattle, and the accelerator program will culminate at the VertueLab Impact Summit in Portland on Sept. 13, when the teams will exhibit their technologies.

The Cohort

The eight startups of the 2019 cohort are:

• BlueDot Photonics (Seattle) —

Developer of an efficiency-boosting coating for solar panels.

• Hempitecture (Ketchum, Idaho) — Producer of hempcrete insulation blocks and other services for hempcrete construction.

• Hexas Biomass (Olympia, Washington) — Producer and distributor of sustainable, non-wood biomass that can supplement or replace wood in multiple applications, including energy, composite/engineered materials, pulp and paper, and other applications that traditionally use wood.

• Maxwell Vehicles (Seattle) — Maker of electric vehicle retrofits for fleet cargo vans.

• SCW Technologies (Seattle) — Developer of a patent-pending technology that uses water to convert plastic to its original petro-chemical state, providing a cost-effective solution to plastic marine litter and the landfilling of end-of-life-plastics.

• SHB Power Plan Engineering (Portland) — Developer of a biomass power system that produces carbon-neutral co-generation power from otherwise intractable fuels, such as sugarcane bagasse and other agricultural waste products.

• Stark Street Materials (Portland) — Producer of lightweight, nontoxic and recyclable radiation shielding garments.

• Sustainabilist (Portland) — Developer of a process improvement platform specifically designed for the HVAC and solar trades that small business owners can use instead of an outside consultant.

Joseph Gallivan
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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