For Andrew Maxey, BSME ’05, the genesis of his carbon-fiber recycling startup, Vartega Inc., came years ago while he was working part-time at the City Bike Shop in Traverse City, Michigan. A customer accidentally drove his car into the garage with his carbon-fiber bicycle still mounted on the roof rack and mangled the bike frame beyond repair. His loss ended up being Maxey’s gain.
“I took the trashed bike frame home and cut it up,” Maxey relates. “I was intrigued by the carbon-fiber material, and that was the spark for my future company.”
Fast forward to 2013 when Vartega Inc. was launched in Golden, Colorado. For his recycling startup, Maxey utilized his technological expertise from prior work in custom equipment, textile processing and oil and gas to formulate a solvent-based process for removing carbon-fiber polymers from discarded scraps of carbon-fiber reinforced composite materials.
“Our company in effect has developed a carbon-fiber ‘washing machine’ to separate the carbon fiber from the resin or plastic in manufacturing scrap,” Maxey explains.
Today, an estimated 30 percent of the carbon-fiber reinforced material produced for use in the manufacturing of sports equipment, automotive parts, aerospace components and other commercial products ends up as industrial waste buried in landfills. Vartega sources this unwanted scrap from the waste streams of domestic and international manufacturers and uses the clean, uncontaminated supply of material in its eco-friendly recycling operation.
Market demand for low-cost carbon fiber is on the rise, and Vartega is well-positioned to fill the unmet demand, according to Maxey. The startup is operating its pilot equipment in an industrial facility in Golden, just down the road from the Coors Brewery, and plans to move to a larger location where it can ramp up production.
“We will be supplying commercial volumes of carbon fiber to several customers, including a Michigan-based automotive supplier that mixes the fiber with thermoplastic to make injection-molded auto parts,” Maxey reports.
Once Vartega’s operation is up and running at full capacity, it will produce approximately 100 tons of carbon fiber annually. The company expects to break even or to generate a profit by the end of 2020, and forecasts $31 million in revenues by 2023.
At the 2018 Michigan Growth Capital Symposium last May, Maxey had an opportunity to network with new potential investors and reinforce relationships with existing ones. “We also made a valuable connection that helped us secure a $225,000 research-and-development grant through the National Science Foundation’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program,” he reports.
To date, Vartega has raised $1.5 million in financing from angel and high-net-worth investors. The startup is currently pursuing a $6 million Series A round of funding.