2024 Innovation at Work: Paving the way to success

By Fred Love, News Service

AMES, Iowa – At the Iowa State University Research Park, even sidewalks are paved with innovation.

Nacu Hernandez strolls down a path paved with asphalt just across the road from Iowa State’s Lloyd Veterinary Medical Center. A harsh wind scours the landscape on a cold morning in late February, and the sunshine does little to warm the rugged gray surface of the path. Hernandez kneels and places his hand on the cold asphalt. To the untrained eye, it looks and feels just like the kind of pavement that covers countless square miles of roads and parking lots the world over.

In fact, that’s the point.

The asphalt is durable and long-lasting, two qualities that are the material’s main selling points. But the asphalt on this path in Ames contains a soybean-derived additive developed by SoyLei Innovations, a company Hernandez helped found. The additive makes the asphalt even more durable under harsh environmental conditions. But what really sets apart the soybean-treated surface is that it’s made of 100% recycled material. Applying the soybean additive to old asphalt means it can be reused, cutting down on its carbon footprint and saving money through improved efficiency.

SoyLei recently moved into office and lab space in the Iowa State University Research Park just a short drive north of the asphalt path. At the Research Park, innovative ideas like SoyLei’s additive take shape and hit the market, creating jobs and generating economic waves that reach far beyond central Iowa.

In addition to the Research Park’s wealth of state-of-the-art office and lab space, companies set up shop there to access the university’s vast array of expertise and equipment. Firms that lease space at the Research Park can also capitalize on a ready employment pool of well-educated graduates steeped in the university’s culture of innovation.

The ISU Research Park stretches across more than 550 acres south of Iowa State’s main campus. The development serves around 135 tenant companies, with more than 1 million square feet of developed building space. The park has attracted some of the world’s most recognizable brands, such as John Deere and Merck Animal Health. Companies with a presence at the Research Park employ more than 9,700 workers across Iowa.

“The Iowa State University Research Park serves as a launchpad for innovation and provides a place for innovators to flourish, including groundbreaking workforce solutions and research and technological advancements that shape our future,” said Alison Doyle, associate director of the Research Park. “Through our strategic partnerships and dynamic community, we spur economic growth, entrepreneurship and job creation across our state and beyond. Our commitment to customer service and collaboration fuels a thriving environment where ideas take shape and innovation transforms industries.”

The Research Park is also home to startups like SoyLei that only recently have taken their first leaps off the drawing board and into the marketplace. The research park reached over 98% occupancy in fiscal year 2023 when 15 tenants leased space or added to their existing space.

“For us, it was a no brainer to locate at the Research Park, especially with the relationship that the Research Park has with Iowa State,” Hernandez said.

Innovative science, economic opportunity

Nacu Hernandez strolls down a path paved with asphalt near the ISU campus.

Nacu Hernandez walks a path paved with asphalt that contains the soybean additive developed by his company, SoyLei. Photo by Christopher Gannon. Larger image.

Hernandez, a research scientist in the ISU Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, founded SoyLei with a few colleagues in 2020 to find innovative uses for soybean oil. The fledgling company began developing an additive to make asphalt more resilient to wear and extreme temperatures. Most of the company’s product is applied to roads and parking lots, but they’re developing applications in construction processes, such as roofing shingles, to make them stronger and longer lasting.

Scientists modify soybean oil with an organic compound called an epoxide. The resulting product has properties that rejuvenate old asphalt. Soybean oil is an ideal carrier for the epoxide because it’s relatively cheap and plentiful in Iowa, a leading U.S. soybean producer.

The additive can augment petroleum products to provide a range of environmental benefits. Paving roads with asphalt releases carbon into the atmosphere and requires heavy energy use. But mixing the SoyLei additive with virgin asphalt lowers the temperature it must reach in order to be used, making the process less energy intensive. The additive also allows for the inclusion of a higher proportion of recycled materials, leading to less carbon emissions in its production.

When Iowa State announced plans to build CYTown, a business and entertainment development at the Iowa State Center, the plan called for temporary parking lots to accommodate construction. SoyLei’s additive allowed the asphalt used in the temporary parking lots to be reused. The technology creates the potential for significant cost and energy savings, and less waste is better for the environment.

The company, which currently employs six people, sold roughly 300,000 pounds of its additive last year, Hernandez said, and SoyLei has doubled its sales each year since its founding.

SoyLei moved into office space at the ISU Research Park in the summer of 2022. The location gives the company easy access to lab space and essential equipment like compressed air, fume hoods and vacuum. Space at the office park comes “set up for research, which is exactly what we need,” Hernandez said.

Research Park products strengthen existing Iowa companies

Janas Materials Inc. is a company that grew from the research of Shan Jiang, an associate professor of materials science and engineering at Iowa State. The company is researching innovative water-based coating materials that could be used as an eco-friendly alternative to organic solvent-based products, and the technology has the potential to reach far beyond Ames to expand choices for consumers across the country.

Jiang explained that water-based coatings, while environmentally friendly, simply do not perform as well as solvent-based products. To find the best of both worlds, his lab developed a chemical additive and approached Diamond Vogel, an Iowa-based paint company, with samples.

Diamond Vogel officials were intrigued enough to ink a research and development contract with Janas Materials to scale up production of the particle additive. The partnership with Janas Materials has strengthened Diamond Vogel’s relationship with Iowa State University, said Doug Vogel, the company’s vice president of marketing and strategic relationships and an ISU alum.

“It’s been energizing for our staff to interface not only with Dr.  Jiang but also with the grad students and students doing the work on the project as well,” Vogel said. 

Diamond Vogel employs roughly 1,000 workers, including around 300 employees in Orange City, where the company was founded in 1926. Vogel said he’s excited by the prospect of harnessing the additive under development by Janas to bring a new product to the water-based coatings market. He noted it’s still early in the relationship between the two companies, but preliminary results look promising.

“In chemistry, they’re often working at such a high level that’s so theoretical that it can be hard to have practical application,” Vogel said. “In this project with Janas, it’s getting more and more practical all the time.”

Diamond Vogel asked for additional samples of the additive under development in the Janas Materials lab. Since that requires more space and equipment, Jiang decided starting a company would be the best way to accommodate the partnership.

Jiang and his colleagues turned to the Research Park to work out the logistics.

The Research Park fits alongside the ISU Startup Factory and the Pappajohn Center for Entrepreneurship as a comprehensive suite of resources for startup businesses at Iowa State. The combination of programs makes Iowa State a fertile ground for faculty, scientists and staff to turn innovative research into successful businesses that drive economic development.

“It’s truly an ecosystem. If you wanted to do it alone, you’d just have too many things you’d have to consider,” Jiang said. “I think it would be impossible to translate our technology into a viable product without these resources.”

Jiang’s background as a scientist did not prepare him for the practical realities of creating and running a business, but the Research Park offered the help and answers he needed.

Research Park personnel helped the budding business land the lab space it needed to scale up from a 10-gallon reaction tank to a 200-gallon reaction tank. The Research Park also helped the company comply with all the government safety regulations for the use of flammable chemistry components. Research Park personnel didn’t just show Jiang space in park buildings. They also showed the company space at the BioCentury Research Farm and other locations on campus. The company chose to move into lab space in the Food Science Building as the first step and will continue to work with the Research Park to identify space for future scale-up and R&D efforts as the business expands.

“You need lab space if you want to do a startup right. I had no clue how to get space and equipment. I had no clue how to establish a business and deal with finance or human resources,” Jiang said. “Iowa State provides a huge range of help, from the Startup Factory to the Research Park, which helped me immensely as I figured these things out.”