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When Beth McDaniel’s father, a chemist, inventor and serial entrepreneur, was in the hospital, he asked to see her and her husband Steve one night to say goodbye. The next morning, he was gone. But, his words from that night—“Don’t ever forget … You can change the world. What the hell, give it a try”—stuck with both of them. In fact, those words and his “retired” lab coat hang in the McDaniels’ laboratories in the southern part of Mississippi. They’re there to remind them and their team every day what the endgame really is: changing the world for the better.
Using paint to solve real-world problems
The McDaniels started Reactive Surfaces, a biotech company, in 2002 to do just that—change the world for the better. Solving real-world problems also held out the promise of financial gain, which was certainly a goal for them and their investors, including friends and family whose investments were a testament to their faith in this team to do both. Over the coming years, they would prove both the scientific efficacy of these bio-based coating alternatives and the commercial viability in the multibillion-dollar paint and coatings industry.
Steve, like Beth’s father, was a chemist—a biochemist to be more exact. He had gotten his Ph.D. cloning and sequencing the gene of an enzyme capable of detoxifying chemical organophosphorus pesticides. After the devastating events of 9/11, weapons of mass destruction, including chemical weapons or nerve gases were on the minds of many. Nerve gases are similar to pesticides, and Steve’s cloned gene was incredibly effective against these chemical weapons. But nerve gases are actually droplets that will light on surfaces, and to be effective, the cloned enzyme would need to be entrained in some sort of coating on a surface. Reactive Surfaces’ lab, led by McDaniel, successfully accomplished this, and the first bio-based enzymatic coating capable of decontaminating chemical weapons and pesticides was born.
The threat of climate change
In 2018, another crisis loomed—global temperatures were rapidly rising, and humanity would suffer because of the excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from the combustion of carbon-rich fossil fuels. “Steve laid on the couch in our den for a week or so in the deepest of contemplation, struck by the enormity of the problem and the time frame for a solution,” Beth recalls. She says they had spent a lifetime making sure their kids would prosper as they grew into adulthood, but the news from the International Panel for Climate Change made clear that such a future was anything but assured. The McDaniels had tried to tackle existential problems with their paint technology before, but this one seemed intractable.
Steve had been tossing around a concept for years based on his research missions to the Arctic. There, and elsewhere, he had been intrigued with creatures that looked like splashes of paint on rocks and other surfaces—surviving even in the most extreme conditions. This lichen, an amalgam of fungi and algae, was spread thinly over vast amounts of surface area in nature. Somehow, these paint-like living creatures can continuously and pervasively pull atmospheric gases directly from the air. Steve wondered if lichen could act as a blueprint to mimic the same powerful carbon dioxide removal. Soon after the release of the IPCC report in October 2018, the team at Reactive Surfaces worked out a plan for achieving a carbon dioxide-capturing paint, and within months, the first Carbon Capture Coating was created.
And the crises keep piling on
In the middle of Reactive Surfaces’ campaign to help add a tool to the climate change toolbox, the virus causing COVID-19 began spreading across the globe. For years, Reactive Surfaces had developed antimicrobial coatings (including antibacterial, anti-mold, anti-algal and antifungal) for giants in the paint industry. This technology could help limit the spread of disease on surfaces—but would it work against an enveloped virus, such as the COVID-19 virus? Again, their team rose to the occasion, resulting in numerous issued patents on some of the world’s first truly antiviral surface coatings.
How to measure success in innovation
With upwards of 36 billion tons of carbon dioxide higher than the natural carbon cycle amounts currently entering the atmosphere every year, industry experts predict the carbon removal and sequestration industry will rapidly hit trillions of dollars per year. “It’s kind of a weird industry. We wish our colleagues (competitors) the best of luck. There’s certainly no lack of CO2 to handle, and we need as many solutions as we can find to combat this existential threat,” Beth says. “When we calculate the [return on investment], we not only include the money but also the positive impact we can have on humanity. Success can (and should) be measured by both.”