Hoowaki’s surfacing technology is making strides by zooming in on the micron level
Hoowaki knows friction. In fact, Hoowaki knows more about friction than any other company in the world, according to co-founder Ralph Hulseman.
The Greenville-based tech firm didn’t start out that way. It started with ice.
Hulseman is an MIT-educated Nebraskan who spent 25 years as a scientist with Michelin, after meeting his wife working for MIT at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. A lifelong executive at a large corporation, Hulseman always wanted to be an entrepreneur. “At MIT, we all talked about how we were going to found companies and change the world,” Hulseman said. “It is a part of the MIT culture.”
In 2002, Hulseman started talking to John “Swampfox” Warner, a Greenville entrepreneur and business advisor, about founding a company together. Hulseman’s job at the time was looking out for new technologies for Michelin. “We talked about a lot of different ideas,” Hulseman said. “We thought about licensing technology to make wheels for a lunar rover, but it turns out you need to be located in Los Angeles to do that.” In 2006, the right technology came along, in the form of Dr. William King.
King, along with his research assistant Dr. Andrew Cannon, was working on a process to make ceramics and metals in the micron size range. A micron is a unit of measurement that is 1,000 times smaller than a millimeter. Your hair is about 100 microns thick. This is important because it would allow a company to pattern different surfaces in metal at the micron level.
It turns out that many of the properties of surfaces — slipperiness, stickiness, resistance to ice forming, etc. — are physical properties of the patterns of the surface at the micron level. “We funded Andrew’s Ph.D. project and gave him four years to develop a process to make metals in the micron range,” Hulseman said. “He finished it in seven months and asked, ‘What next?’”
Armed with the technology to make micron-level patterns, Hulseman, Warner, and King founded Hoowaki in 2008. Their first product was creating lotus leaf surfaces — surfaces that mimic the ultra-waterproof, or “superhydrophobic,” properties of the lotus leaf — that didn’t allow ice to form. The result was a dead end, at least temporarily.
Along the way, though, the team returned to their first love, friction, and the business took off.
Scratching the Surface
“Most people believe that friction — essentially the slipperiness or stickiness of a surface — is a physical property of the material itself. Some things are inherently slippery; other things are inherently sticky,” Hulseman explained. Hoowaki found, however, that the patterns of the surface on the micron level determine friction. “Armed with that knowledge, we can alter the surface patterns of almost any surface and make it 10 to 100 times more slippery or more sticky.”
The results are astounding.
One of the recent products Hoowaki is developing are stents — hollow plastic or metal cylinders that are placed in people’s blood vessels and other channels to keep them open. These are starting animal trials.
The problem with stents is that they often slip out of place. Someone who needs the stent to survive often must undergo surgery after surgery to replace it correctly. These stents can’t be sewn in — the muscular force would tear them loose and create massive problems — so they rely on outward pressure to stay in place. With Hoowaki’s technology added to the exterior surface of the stent, they stick in place. No more dislocated stents. No more unnecessary surgeries.
Hoowaki can make medical devices slippery as well. Anyone who has had to endure a catheter might appreciate the idea of a catheter with a super-slippery surface that slides in and out of place with almost no resistance.
Hoowaki’s tech is finding partners not only in the medical field, but also in packaging, where they are making labels for slippery products like soap or oil containers more grippy, and where they are enabling bags of liquid, like the wine in your wine box, to fully leave the bag. Hoowaki’s technology has so many applications that they are keeping Doug Kim at McNair Law Firm busy filing patents. “We have about 20 patent applications filed and are ready to file many more,” said Kim, a specialist in intellectual property rights.
Local benefits, local challenges
Hulseman is quick to point out the help Hoowaki has gotten here in Greenville. “John Warner has been a great partner,” Hulseman said, “I would start a company with him again.” Hulseman also credits SC Launch, a program of the S.C. Research Authority, for early funding and advice; Clemson University for early support; and the Greenville Chamber of Commerce’s NEXT program for providing facilities and help with talent. “John Moore and Brenda Laakso have been an incredible part of the team,” Hulseman said.
Being based in South Carolina is not without its challenges, according to Hulseman. “We don’t have any customers located in South Carolina,” he said, “and some of our competitors are in states that provide more funding and support than South Carolina does.”
However, Upstate South Carolina is catching up, thanks to initiatives from Clemson, the Chamber, and others. “The bottom line is that our incredible team can solve surface friction problems faster and easier than anyone,” Hulseman said. “Our greatest challenge is narrowing down the opportunities.”