Serial inventor Logan Williams’ onto fourth startup sale, Shear Edge’s wool v plastic pellets
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Serial inventor Logan Williams’ onto fourth startup sale, Shear Edge’s wool v plastic pellets

Jun 22, 2024

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Shear Edge founder Logan Williams with his company's strong wool pellets - pitched as a replacement for plastic without manufacturers having to retool any of their machinery.

At just 27, Christchurch inventor Logan Williams (Ngāi Tahu) is in the process of selling his fourth startup - Shear Edge, which allows manufacturers to substitute wool fibre-based pellets for plastic, without buying new machinery or substantially retooling their production lines.

It’s all the more remarkable given that, in his teenage years, he showed little interest in inventing, or business.

“I was in the first football XI at Timaru Boys’ High School and more interested in football and girls back then,” he says.

That changed when he enrolled at the University of Canterbury, where he studied science, business and applied psychology, ultimately earning a PhD.

There, inspired by a close friend with photosensitive epilepsy, he developed Polar Optics - 3D-printed polarised contact lenses that helped prevent seizures caused by flashing lights, or even walking past a line of trees that cast shadows with a flashing effect.

He started working with a manufacturer in Europe on prototypes.

He also invented a medical nebuliser to atomise liquid medication with no moving parts or batteries, and created a way of converting “rock snot” - the invasive river algae known as didymo - into 100 per cent recyclable paper, fabric or bioplastic.

Along the way, Williams got accepted into the Kōkiri Accelerator Programme, designed to help Māori businesses (whose backers include Callaghan Innovation, Te Puni Kōkiri and Spark), was named as a finalist for Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year in 2018 and included in the Forbes 30 Under 30 list for 2020.

“Before coming to UC I used to see the world in black and white, but now I see the world in colour,” he said in a university profile as he worked towards his doctorate.

The tertiary experience also left him a little wealthier as he sold his contact lens, nebuliser and didymo startups for between $1 million and $2m each.

Those entities didn’t trade. Williams was essentially selling the intellectual property behind his inventions (contract terms mean he can’t name the buyers, but two household-name multinationals were in the frame).

Shear Edge falls under the Black Heron Trust, created by Williams to partner with established companies - who have included Bayer, Johnson and Johnson and Fonterra - to create novel technology, find seed investment, then see the startup scaled and managed by an established corporate partner. A portion of the profits go to the SPCA.

Over the past three years, Shear Edge has partnered with Maisey Group in Hamilton for several proof-of-concept products, including a prototype catamaran built by Whangaparaoa boatmaker FatCat, kayaks sold through Torpedo 7 (which saw the regular rather than recycled plastic blended into the wool pellets, for durability), fence battens (for Christchurch’s Styx Solutions), chopping boards, cooler bins - and the most high-volume product: thousands of knives with natural-fiber handles, made by Victory Knives and sold by The Ironclad Pan Company.

Williams sees Shear Edge’s product used for anything that uses hard plastic today, including cladding, furniture and car interiors.

Patents have been secured for Australia and New Zealand.

Why sell the startup at such an early stage?

“I’ve got two ‘children’ and I don’t have time for both. I have to put up one for adoption,” Willams says.

“I’m also building a company with Fonterra to destroy methane,” Williams says.

That company is Halo Agritech, co-owned by Williams’ Black Heron, agritech investment outfit Sprout (whose backers include Fonterra and venture capital firm Finistere), The Factory (whose supporters include Massey University’s Massey Ventures, Fonterra and Gallager) and Fonterra through a direct stake. In 2018, Williams, with Fonterra chief science officer Jermey Hill, developed a prototype photocatalytic device to chemically remove both biogenic and industrial sources of methane.

Williams hopes Halo will literally change the world, by playing a big role in reducing carbon initiatives.

But he also has big hopes for the way Shear Edge could help shake up a part of the farming sector that has long been in the doldrums. Its process uses coarse or strong wool, which can sell for as little as $1 a kilo. Williams hopes adoption of the startup’s pellets in manufacturing could see that rebound to $5 a kilo.

Williams pioneered a method of adding processed strong wool to polymers, including bio-based PLA (polylactic acid), typically made from corn starch. The result is a material that not only uses less plastic but is lighter and stronger - and, crucially, this wooly plastic can be processed by existing plastic-forming machinery.

The genesis of the process was blunt.

“I started out by going to The Warehouse and getting a toasting machine, 1kg of PLA corn starch and chopped up some wool with scissors and simply made a sheet out of it. That’s literally how I started,” Williams told RNZ in 2021. He used a $25 toasty machine and an electric frying pan to melt down the PLA.

But there is complex science behind it.

“Wool is composed of keratin protein,” explains Williams. “It’s actually one of the strongest natural materials on the planet, so when it gets infused with the polymer it makes it incredibly strong, but also lighter, so the more wool we can put into the polymer the lighter the products will be and less plastic will be needed.”

The pellets, made in a Maisey Group factory in Hamilton, can be used as a substitute for plastic manufacturing without having to invest in new machinery.

“Our pellets can be universally applied to almost all forms of manufacturing, says Williams.

“This includes injection molding, extrusion, rotational molding, and thermoforming. Our customers may only have to slightly change the temperature and torque of their existing machinery, and aside from visible fibers, it looks almost identical to the industry standard.

Shear Edge (registered as Keravos) is on the block for $3 million, with the deal including 10 tonnes of its pellets.

While high-interest rates have thrown venture capital and private equity players into something of a lull, business broker Mike Bryce - who is handling the sale - sees a trade sale as the most likely fit. And he says in that market, there hasn’t been the crash in value that we’ve seen in VC deals. Trade sales have seen only a relatively modest falloff, Bryce said, from 3x to 2.5x EBITPDA (a measure of ebitda - earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation - with the remuneration of the founder or “proprietor” to give it that “P” removed).

“Shear Edge is a stand-out due to the IP [intellectual property] Logan has created and the global rights to it included,” Bryce says.

Chris Keall is an Auckland-based member of the Herald’s business team. He joined the Herald in 2018 and is the technology editor and a senior business writer.

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