(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is final article in our series spotlighting the entrepreneurs participating in the inaugural “Spark Cleantech Accelerator” hosted by the Spark Innovation Center at the University of Tennessee Research Park. The entrepreneurs behind each start-up will pitch their companies during a “Demo Day” event tomorrow morning in Knoxville. The public is invited. To register, click here.)
By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
“We are in a very unique position,” says Ryan Ginder, Founder of Windfall. “No one can do what we can do with end-of-life composite materials. We have a chance to not be the Coca-Cola of recycling, but the soda itself.”
That’s a lofty vision and goal for the Research Assistant Professor in the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Biomedical Engineering at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK), but he’s well on his way. As described in this 2021 article from the newsletter of the UT Research Foundation, Ginder has developed a novel glass fiber recovery technology for large-scale recycling of wind turbine blades and other glass fiber reinforced plastics, into new composites. His end goal is to take as much glass fiber composite as possible and divert it out of the landfill such that today’s wind blades can become tomorrow’s lighter weight, fuel efficient vehicles.
Ginder (pictured here) and his start-up are the only Knoxville-based participants in the inaugural cohort of the “Spark Cleantech Accelerator” operated by the Spark Innovation Center at the University of Tennessee Research Park. He’s not a Knoxville native but moved here in 2011 to pursue his doctorate after earning his B.S. in Materials Science and Engineering at Northwestern University. During the five years he was working on his Ph.D. in Materials Science and Engineering at UTK, Ginder was a Graduate Research Assistant and then completed a Postdoctoral Research Fellowship working on projects at Oak Ridge National Laboratory before joining the UTK faculty full-time in late 2019.
“My wife is the owner of ABA Interventions LLC, so I could not leave town after graduating,” he explained. From his postdoctoral work in composites sustainability, Ginder says he learned that more than 90 percent of composites are made with fiberglass but that no at scale end-of-life solution currently exists beyond the landfill and cement kiln incineration.
“I had one of those crazy ideas on a Friday afternoon,” he said. That idea on how to sustainably recycle these materials instead led to the successful pursuit of two Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) program grants funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Wind Energy Technologies Office totaling $1.25 million for further development of his technology. One of the project partners is Carbon Rivers, a Knoxville start-up that we spotlighted in this May 2021 teknovation.biz article.
“My goal is to turn end-of-life wind blades into almost anything rather than going to the landfill,” Ginder says, adding, “We need to reuse what we’ve already made. The environmental component is very important. There’s a growing demand on raw materials. We need to take what we have already made . . . connecting waste generators and raw materials manufacturers for new value creation.”
In applying for the “Spark Cleantech Accelerator,” he says there were several goals. “To commercialize the technology, I needed to learn how to structure the narrative to fund raise. I also needed to continue growing connections to the larger composites ecosystem and the economic development network here in the southeast.”
The latter is particularly important as Ginder scales Windfall from the current one-ton pilot plant to a 20-ton per day facility sometime next year. From there, he can do what he calls “serial add-ons” to the facility until it reaches a capacity of 200 tons per day within four years.
“It’s a lot of work but very rewarding,” Ginder says. “I want to have the first commercial site here.”
The accelerator is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, City of Knoxville, Launch Tennessee, Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), and UT Research Foundation, and is further supported by the Energy Mentor Network, a program managed by the Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council. It is also a partner in the Heartland Climate Tech Partnership, a collaboration of start-up programs across the Greater Midwest Region including Evergreen Climate Innovations and mHUB, both based in Chicago, and Centrepolis Accelerator which is based in Detroit.