IC COHORT 4 SPOTLIGHT: Actinic focused on thermally-cured thermoset composites

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first article in a series spotlighting the five start-ups that comprise Cohort 4 of the “Innovation Crossroads” program operated by Oak Ridge National Laboratory with support from the Tennessee Valley Authority. Today’s focus is on Actinic LLC.)

Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) has built a strong international reputation in advanced manufacturing and composites, so what better place than here for a start-up focused on designing, developing, and testing formulations of thermally cured thermosets to advance its work?

That’s certainly the belief of Joe Fortenbaugh, Co-Founder of Actinic LLC, one of the five companies selected for Cohort 4 of the “Innovation Crossroads” program operated by ORNL with support from the Tennessee Valley Authority. He’s a Pennsylvania native who recently earned his PhD in Chemistry from Penn State University. The other Co-Founder is Ben Lear, an Associate Professor of Chemistry at the university.

“I had a long-term interest in entrepreneurship and starting a business,” Fortenbaugh told us recently. That interest was accelerated when he had the opportunity to participate at both the regional and national levels of the National Science Foundation’s I-Corps program with a project funded by PPG and the Army.

“I had no idea that our research could be turned into a commercial product,” Fortenbaugh said, but he quickly learned that was not the case as he undertook the “customer discovery” process that is the hallmark of the I-Corps program. Over a six-week period in 2018, he conducted 120 interviews with individuals like the Chief Technology Officer at General Motors and visited with potential customers at the headquarters of Apple, PPG and 3M.

“It was a really great experience,” Fortenbaugh says, and the outcome was two value propositions. One involved on-demand curing of coatings and paints. This would have been very beneficial to the automotive industry and its manufacturing plants that require huge amounts of energy to cure coatings – one percent of the total energy consumed in this country.

“We decided to not pursue that path and instead to focus on developing and introducing a new class of materials into the 3D printing market which has a lower barrier for initial market entry,” he explained. The materials would be thermally-cured thermoset composites like silicones, epoxies, and polyurethanes.

Earlier this year, we described a thermoset-focused partnership between ORNL’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility and Magnum Venus Products Inc., a local manufacturer of composite application equipment. In that article (click here), the importance of thermosets and the R&D leadership of ORNL were described in great detail.

Thanks to funding from PPG, the U.S. Army and a $75,000 lab bench to commercialization grant from Penn State, Fortenbaugh was able to keep the R&D going. “We are still very early stage in where the technology is, but we proved we can thermally cure polymers in less than a tenth of a second,” he says.

Then, the newly minted PhD met a representative of Early Charm Ventures at a networking event prior to COVID-19 and learned of the “Innovation Crossroads” program. “It was kind of serendipitous,” Fortenbaugh says. “The technology would have been dead in the water if I had not gotten this opportunity.”

Now that he has, he’s truly “all-in,” having bought a house in West Oak Ridge.

So, what’s his key outcome from the program? “I hope to have a commercial prototype – a real working MVP – by Spring 2022,” Fortenbaugh says.

ORNL recorded YouTube videos on each of the Crossroads team. Here’s a link to Fortenbaugh describing Actinic.

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