Engineering a greener, safer latex

Latex is used in almost everything, from elastic waistbands to bra straps to medical gloves to condoms. But millions are allergic to it. Meet Vytex, an engineered alternative.

Latex is everywhere.

It coats Mackintosh rain coats. It covers the hair of championship swimmers. It keeps pathogens away in the surgery room. It's Catwoman's signature look. And, of course, it's the foundation for the modern contraceptive industry.

The natural material is used in just about everything. The problem: more than 2 million Americans are allergic to it, including an outsized population of healthcare workers.

Duluth, Ga.-based Vystar is the company responsible for Vytex, an alternative type of natural latex that's engineered to reduce the amount of antigenic proteins in the material. It's also more sustainable, since it takes less water and energy to produce.

I spoke with chief executive Bill Doyle about his company's mission to bring "green chemistry" to the masses.

SP: How did Vystar get started?

BD: We got started back in 2000. A friend of my business partner challenged him -- he's a Georgia Tech chemical engineer -- to solve the latex allergy issue. So many people are allergic to the proteins.

He came to the conclusion to work with the raw material latex. We set this up in 2004, and finished up our research and development and realized it was a very large marketplace, just as a widely-used material. We could sell to those companies making gloves.

The American Latex Allergy Association says [the rate of latex allergy sufferers in the U.S.] is three percent. That can be an itch or a rash or full reaction: asthma, seizures, shock. It could be from a Band-Aid, it could be from a trip to the dentist.

Some people have to wear special socks and underwear. About 17 percent of healthcare workers have the problem; with repeated exposure, that allergy is gained.

There are 75 gloves [used] per day per hospital bed in the United States. There's a profound business opportunity there.

You've got gloves. Not just exam gloves, but surgical gloves, clean-up gloves. Adhesives -- a Band-Aid, or a Post-It note, or the foam pieces of a mattress. The foam mattress itself, by far preferred in Europe. Clothing -- if you have clothing with an elastic band on it, it's more than likely latex. Socks, underwear, bra straps. Those things that have "memory" and don't buckle with washing. Balloons, except for Mylar. Condoms.

There are 1.3 to 1.4 million metric tons of liquid latex that go into the non-tire marketplace every year. That's worth $3.7 billion every year. That's big business.

The best part is that latex is natural. It comes out of a tree. It grows 25 degrees on either side of the equator.

SP: You're not the only business trying to solve the problem. What makes you different?

BD: Some businesses were denaturing the proteins with enzymes. The problem is whatever can be denatured can be renatured. Other businesses rinse the gloves more, but that breaks down the barrier properties of latex.

No matter how much you build something, unless you sell and market it, they're not going to come. The enzyme guys never had that marketing thing. They were never set up that way.

We've raising funds for sales and PR. We present at conferences. We've gotten out there.

SP: Now you promote Vytex as a sustainable alernative.

BD: We started out to be one thing. We wound up being something very different. Let's say a glove manufacturer does two or three chlorine bleaches and warm water rinses to get protein levels done. You get the same amount with Vytex with none. That's huge for the environment.

We showed the balloon makers that they don't have to use titanium dioxide to bleach the balloons to tint them with pigment.

SP: What about the price? Is your alternative prohibitively expensive?

BD: Once they try it, it's about a nine to 12-month process. These companies are entrenched in what they do. We're more expensive than natural latex, but if you look at overall production costs, it's either a small premium, you break even, or even come out on the other side overall, because you use less chemicals and water.

We have two patents. We discovered that people who had a problem with gloves had more of a problem when they were powdered. The powder was absorbing the proteins and concentrating them in certain areas. Some of these talcs have aluminum hydroxide in them, which is insoluble.

How do you get it to work with liquid latex? We put it in a slurry, into the solution, and during centrifuging, the proteins were falling to the bottom. Now you've got all the non-rubber content in the skim. The top layer is your Vytex product. Any latex that's non-tire goes through the centrifuging process. The skim can be used for roller-blade tires.

That's why they call Vytex the "no-odor foam." We remove all the stuff that decays.

SP: All of this involves the manipulation of natural latex. Haven't we figured out a completely synthetic solution?

BD: We have. But it's very expensive. It's also a petroleum byproduct. Do you want to switch yourself in that mode?

The balloon industry did a study that showed that a natural latex balloon in a forest or a landfill has the same sustaining length of time as an oak leaf. Show me a Mylar balloon that isn't going to be there in the next Ice Age.

SP: What's your next step?

BD: We are working on a better Vytex. We've found ways already to start peeling costs away to make it better.

We just finished up a major research project with one of our labs, not located in the United States. A Vytex made more efficiently and effectively.

We're a small company going through this. We're focusing on these seven industries. We have just barely scratched the surface in the glove and condom industries; we've got a very good foothold in the balloon industry. We've just scratched the surface in adhesives. I have manufacturing in India, Malaysia, Thailand, Guatemala.

There are two companies that are under a license model, because they actually do some selling for me. Guatemala handles the Americas; India handles its own country. I'm very cautious with bringing people on because I obviously have to share the specific formula with them. There's only so much included in a patent.

SP: What's your biggest challenge?

BD: Overcoming any little price discrepancy that's out there.

Trying to get someone to try a new raw material is a touchy thing to start with. The biggest challenge has been that increase in price, in a latex environment where natural rubber latex is up almost 100 percent over last year.

Even for people who have their lines set up with that, some have just converted to make Nitrile gloves, or neoprene condoms, because sadly those things have become more cost-effective. Every single commodity is up significantly.

SP: All else equal, what's your value proposition? Cost or environment?

BD: It's a combination of both. I actually have companies, where we're in the final stages of production trials, that brought this product in for no other reason than because it's natural. That's significant because they use some other synthetic materials, and they get good results, but one of their mandates would be to have parallel lines of completely natural [products].

Some of the companies -- I sit back and think it's really amazing that they've given feedback for us to make a better Vytex. They believe in the fact that the more we do with sustainable raw materials, the better off we'll be in the long run.

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