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Seattle startup has a climate friendly solution to the sticky problem of petroleum-based adhesives

A few of the packages that make up the billions that are shipped each year in the U.S. (GeekWire File Photo / Taylor Soper)

Every year, billions of packages are shipped in the U.S. alone. While Amazon and others are trying to shrink the size and environmental footprint of the boxes and mailers being used, one sticky challenge to solve is the shipping labels plastered on each item. The labels typically use glues that are petroleum-based and not biodegradable.

A Seattle-based startup is working on a fix. Nvirovate is commercializing a soy-based, compostable alternative for the label glue, which is technically known as a pressure-sensitive adhesive. Production of the plant-derived adhesive generates at least 70% less greenhouse gases than traditional glues, according to the company.

Nvirovate launched in May 2021 and recently landed $850,000 in angel investments from two clean-tech focused investors — VertueLab and E8 Angels —  as well as Diversified Chemical Technologies; Willamette University; Keeler Investments; Family Angel Management Fund; and an individual investor.

“We’re trying to do something that is meaningful long-term,” said founder and CEO James Holbery.

While package labels are a specific application, the broader tape and label market is worth $80 billion globally, Holbery said, and Nvirovate’s solution could be adapted to about 75% of those uses.

“Our whole goal right here is to displace petroleum from a product that is ubiquitous in our lives,” he added.

The Nvirovate team, from left to right: Julian Banbury, Jim Holbery and Jacob Burbery. (Nvirovate Photo)

Nvirovate — a sort of portmanteau of “environment” and “innovation” — is working with adhesives technology created at Oregon State University. Holbery was an adjunct professor at OSU for a short time and collaborated with the scientist who developed the adhesive. The same researcher, Kaichang Li, also developed and commercialized a soy flour adhesive for composite wood products such as plywood.

Nvirovate bought the license to four OSU patents related to the label adhesive and through the company’s own research and with some guidance from the university’s scientists have developed their commercial product.

The company is partnering with Detroit-based Diversified Chemical Technologies to produce the adhesive and distribute it to Diversified’s existing customers. Nvirovate is adding additional manufacturers in southern Washington, the East Coast, and an unnamed “global adhesive producer,” Holbery said.

In March, Nvirovate opened its Seattle lab. The startup is also working with the University of Washington’s Clean Energy Testbeds to generate foundational data about their adhesive. While the glue offers numerous environmental benefits, its main limitation, Holbery said, is that it weakens at temperatures above 122 degrees Fahrenheit.

The company has four employees, including two chemists and Holbery, who has a Ph.D. in material science and engineering from the UW. His career history includes roles at Boeing, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Microsoft. He previously launched a startup that makes transparent COVID masks to facilitate communication while still limiting the spread of the virus.

Nvirovate has shared information on its technology with some of the country’s largest adhesive manufacturers. One expressed interest, Holbery said, in an exclusive deal that would provide adhesive for fruit labels and food packaging. The company took a pass on the offer, he added, in order to focus on the labels while leaving the door open to broader applications.

“You try to do one thing well first,” Holbery said. “We chose what we think is the highest volume and quickest path to really establishing a brand and getting our product out there.”

He also suspects that major adhesive companies are likely doing their own research into plant-based or other natural sources for new glues. Holbery’s hope is that Nvirovate has perhaps at least a three year head start on the competition.

“We’re pretty confident,” he said.

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