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Plast 2015: Biopolymers, custom orthopedic products showcased at startup pavilion

Calling it a "seedbed for new projects," Mario Maggiani, Managing Director of Promaplast Srl, the organization behind the Plast trade show, explained the rationale behind the start-up initiative at this year's event. "We wanted to send an important message," he said. "Namely: It is still possible to do business in Italy!"

Calling it a "seedbed for new projects," Mario Maggiani, Managing Director of Promaplast Srl, the organization behind the Plast trade show, explained the rationale behind the start-up initiative at this year's event. "We wanted to send an important message," he said. "Namely: It is still possible to do business in Italy!"

He added: "Given the way the recession is dragging on and the serious difficulties that continue to plague all of Italian business, including the plastics and rubber industry, we feel it is our duty to find a way to facilitate young entrepreneurs and the companies that represent our future."

Some 30 startups were selected for participation in the event, which is located in a clearly recognizable dedicated area at the back of Hall 11. "And as startups are notoriously strapped for cash, we've provided the space free of charge," Maggiani said.

Among the companies exhibiting in the Start Plast area are prospective material producers, software developers and even a company manufacturing baby products. Although the range of products and services is wide and varied, the young companies all have this much in common: A tenacious optimism and an unflagging belief in their ultimate success.

So, what's in the incubator?

Proteo orthopedic devices.
One of the companies, called EggPlant ("nothing to do with the vegetable," said Domenic Centrone), has developed technology for producing PHB, a biodegradable biopolymer belonging to the family of polyhydroxyalkanoates. "Basically, we take wastewater from the agrifood industry—currently from the production of olive oil—and use it to produce bioplastics," he explained. "Bacteria eat the nutrients in the water and produce PHB, which we harvest. In that way, we address two big problems: Wastewater disposal and pollution caused by the manufacture and use of traditional hydrocarbons-based plastics."

The company was started in 2013, and its technology is currently at the lab stage. "But now we are ready to scale. We are working to complete a prototype system for a continuous process and then we will move to the pilot stage," said Centrone. The company has filed two patents covering the technology developed and is working on a third, which is for a new electrically conductive bioplastic. That patent should be granted by the end of summer.

EggPlant has also developed a soft bio-compound that will form the basis for a technology platform for everything from cosmetics to green lubricants. This will be available on a licensing basis.

Just down the aisle, Andrea Alessi of 3DFlow, a start-up company producing software solutions involving photogrammetry, 3D modeling of reality, 3D processing and 3D visual effects, was eager to explain how his company's software worked. "Our software makes it possible to create 3D models from pictures taken with a regular camera," he said. "The product, called 3DF Zephyr, is now a year old. The technology, developed by us, is quite complex, but is completely automatic, so no coding or manual editing is needed. We have also created a very user-friendly interface that allows exports to most common 3D formats." The technology is not just for 3D printing; other applications, said Alessi, include avalanche prevention, by mapping the landscape where hazardous situations arise, and heritage maintenance, usually with the help of drones.

Startup company Esagono is showing its Melted Byte 3D Delta printer for products measuring up to 40 x 40 x 50 cm. "It's now eight months old," said Marco Ginbelli, who introduced himself proudly as the father of the machine. "But there is some two years of R&D invested in this product, which offers additive and subtractive manufacturing."

The fused filament fabrication technology is the additive technology; the tool is equipped with a double print head, allowing two materials to be printed simultaneously. The subtractive manufacturing method involves substituting the print head by an electro-spindle with interchangeable milling, cutting and drilling tools. "The machine allows for the creation of physically functional products," said Ginbelli, "but it also cuts costs and the time needed to make prototypes, and enables you to produce functional prototypes to show to customers."

At Proteo, the focus is all on technology for the digital production of customized orthopedic devices and individual protective sports items, such as face masks or shin guards. As Federico Papi, one of the founders of the year-old company, explained: "We can provide software and hardware to the technicians making the orthopedic devices. These technicians are usually not expert in using CAD modeling programs, so we have made it easy for them."

Basically, the technology consists of a scanner and a software program. Technicians can either scan and input all the data themselves at the health center, or have Proteo, which is in communication with the technician via dedicated Internet server, produce the printable template of the desired device—in less than a minute, according to Papi—and submit this for approval. Either the technician will subsequently print it out in PLA, or Proteo can print it for them, using SLS technology (polyamide) or fused deposition technology (PLA).

Papi: "We've tested our devices against standard products, and patients clearly indicate a preference for our customized products. One patient with carpal tunnel syndrome has up until now even been able to avoid surgery, because of the relief gained from using our product."

Ekoala, which has been in business for almost one year, was displaying a colorful range of baby and children's products made of 100% biodegradable bioplastic. "We use only Mater-Bi, from Novamont," said company co-founder Daniele Radaelli. "These are our first products." The company aims to produce a line of toys, cups, plates and the like in strong, bright colors designed to appeal to infants and children, all manufactured from biobased materials that obviously contain no BPA or plasticizers. "Even the pigments we use are biobased. They are from Clariant's compostable Renol line," he said.

All the ingredients used are certified for contact with food, and Ekoala is in the process of obtaining official food contact certification for its products, as well. The products are not yet for sale: all the products on display were produced especially for the show. "However, our products will go on the market toward the end of this year," Radaelli promised. "Right now we are talking with a number of retailers and online sites to set up the marketing," he said.

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