Tony Jabar is an ideas guy. Described by colleagues as a "serial entrepreneur," he's constantly imagining ways chemistry can improve people's lives.
As founder and CEO of Waterville-based Cerealus Holdings LLC, he has the ability to turn many of those ideas into action — just not all of them.
"I'd need 15 labs to keep up with the ideas," he says. "It becomes a triage of development. We identify those that have the greatest impacts and can be brought to market in the shortest time and that satisfy our intellectual curiosity."
Cerealus recently transformed one such idea into Ceregel, an innovative green technology that uses what Jabar describes as a super starch to increase the quality and strength of paper during its manufacture. Ceregel also helps cut production costs and reduces the amount of raw materials wasted in the papermaking process, without the need for special equipment.
The product has sparked excitement at the University of Maine Pulp and Paper Process Development Center for its potential to enhance the competitiveness of Maine's paper industry, and by extension, the state's economy. In early tests, Ceregel is expected to save paper makers $14 per ton for certain paper grades, of which the U.S. produces between 80 and 90 million tons per year.
But Jabar isn't looking that far ahead. While he's in the first stages of marketing Ceregel to the paper industry, he's already hard at work on his next project.
During the Ceregel testing phase, Cerealus scientists studied the ramifications of the technology, as well as identifying additional technologies that could help make the product even more effective. The most exciting of these technologies, Jabar says, is Cerecarb, which reduces wood fiber content in paper by up to 10%. The one-two combination of Cerecarb and Ceregel, Jabar says, will allow paper manufacturers to realize significant cost savings. A corn-based product called HOLDOUT, which is used to coat food-grade paper packaging, rounds out the company's stable of paper manufacturing technologies.
Because Jabar studied pulp and paper chemistry at the University of Maine in Orono, developing technologies to improve paper manufacturing is a natural fit. But that's not the only reason behind his focus.
"We've drifted toward paper, but it's really a combination of expertise and need. Obviously, the more you understand a problem, the more quickly you can find a solution," he says.
In addition to paper making technologies, Cerealus has also developed general purpose adhesives and a paper-based alternative to plastic mulch used in farming. The company is developing biopolymers that could replace plastics, as well. In keeping with Jabar's vision when he founded Cerealus in 2004, these are all plant-based, sustainable products, which the company either licenses, sells or jointly manufactures.
Jabar estimates that within the next six to nine months, Ceregel will roll out industry-wide, depending on the resources his company has available — notably time, money and technical support personnel. The product got nearly $200,000 in financial backing from the Maine Technology Institute. Cerealus relies on UMaine for technical assistance in bringing Ceregel and Cerecarb into commercial production.
So while there is a potential windfall in Jabar's future, he's mindful of the potential pitfalls of growing too much, too soon — among them losing your company to investors or worse. Instead, Cerealus is focusing on growth that will allow it to continue to be locally owned and locally focused, both of which are important to Jabar.
"Yes, this could be a huge money-maker, but in the end, this is where I want to be," he says. "I always tell people that I consider myself fortunate to be able to do what I want to do where I want to do it."
French ascent | Jason Parent, president, Maine delegation to the organizing body of the 2014 World Acadian Congress, Madawaska; director of development and college relations, Northern Maine Community College, Presque Isle