For Earth Day, we’re celebrating the winner of our 2020 Sustainable Practice Impact Award, Haley Marie Keith, co-founder and CEO of MITO Material Solutions. The company has developed an adhesive additive that dramatically strengthens vital composites used across manufacturing, particularly in the aerospace and automotive industries. Carbon-fiber composites are rigid, making them susceptible to cracks that can affect performance and even cause serious mechanical failures. MITO uses a proprietary, hybrid formula to produce an adhesive that glues together the fibers, making them stronger, more flexible, and significantly lighter.
To put it in perspective, if you made a Boeing 787 out of MITO-infused carbon fiber composite parts, you could shed 48,000 pounds off the aircraft. This has huge potential for manufacturers seeking ways to incorporate eco-friendly practices into their processes — and the resulting positive impact on our environment could be tremendous.
From their start at Oklahoma State University to their journey introducing their product to U.S. manufacturing markets, the team behind MITO Material Solutions has been guided by their mission to empower the next materials evolution. “As a society, we are moving away from more natural resources like metal, and moving towards the reusability and recyclability of composite materials and plastics.” says CEO Haley Marie Keith, “We want to empower those sustainable ideas to be brought to life by enhancing their properties with these hybrid polymers.”
their journey from university to the real world
In 2016, Haley Marie Keith was pursuing her MBA at Oklahoma State University when she was offered the opportunity to work with the technology behind MITO as part of OSU’s CIE Scholars Program. Dr. Ranji Vaidyanathan, an OSU-Tulsa materials science and engineering professor and VentureWell Faculty Grants recipient, invented the material with a team of student researchers as part of his work at the university. Kevin Keith, another OSU student, also began working on commercializing the technology. With a decade of experience in the automotive industry, Haley recognized the unique value that the composite could bring to industrial manufacturing, and after the course, Haley and Kevin kept working with Dr. Vaidyanathan to investigate potential uses for the technology.
The adhesive epoxy additive — MITO’s flagship product — increases the durability, flexibility, and lightweight capabilities of fiber-reinforced composites by up to 100%. An adhesive like MITO enables composites to retain their integrity and last longer, lowering the risk of severe mechanical failures. What makes MITO’s additive special is its ability to deliver multiple improvements to the material within one product that can be easily and sustainably integrated in standard manufacturing processes.
“What we’re doing is creating hybrid additives that have multiple functions, both chemically and physically, to enhance structural properties of these materials,” says Kevin, “and our focus is doing that in a more environmentally-friendly and sustainable way.”
how MITO meets a gap in the market
During customer discovery interviews, Haley had a crucial realization: while many industry players were innovating how to strengthen composite materials and fibers, no one was working on the glue. As Haley and Kevin worked to validate the market practicality and value of the technology, Dr. Vaidyanathan and his team iterated on the additive’s features to prepare MITO for real-world application. Though OSU initially sought to license the additive to major industry players, the MITO team worked to convince key stakeholders at the university that they could bring better value to the technology, and eventually secured a non-personal patent from the university’s technology transfer office.
After graduating from OSU, Haley and Kevin worked tirelessly to bring MITO in the real world, and so far, they’ve had incredible success. The company has raised over a million dollars in investments and grants from institutions including the National Science Foundation, Oklahoma State University, the Rice Business Plan competition, and VentureWell. Haley serves as the company CEO, guiding the day-to-day operations and handling dialogue with investors and other financial stakeholders. Led by Kevin, the product team investigates what materials are used within manufacturing industries, what the critical failure points of those materials are, and how their additive could benefit and strengthen those properties, structurally. By centering customer feedback and collaboration in their model, the team can create precise solutions for their customers — who aren’t just in industries that already have access to such advanced materials.
“It seemed like all these advanced materials were only being used in industries like aerospace or space exploration, industries that already had a lot of money going into all these technologies,” said Haley. “But growing up in the RV industry, which was more consumer friendly, I realized that the consumer industries were totally getting overlooked. MITO wanted to change that and make it available for all.”
building an ecosystem of success
Dr. Vaidyanathan — who currently serves as the Inventor & Innovation Advisor on MITO’s board — has been with Haley and Kevin since they were student entrepreneurs navigating the rocky waters of bringing a startup to life. Their relationship through their time at OSU and into the startup world was strengthened by trust in the technology — and each other.
“The big thing is trust. If I had said I need to be involved in the day-to-day operations, and give you permission for every decision — that’s a recipe for disaster,” says Dr. Vaidyanathan. “If you give student entrepreneurs freedom to make decisions, they will really grow and bloom.”
Haley offered a few pieces of advice for student innovators looking to take their inventions into the real world. Proactivity and curiosity are key elements to succeeding as a student entrepreneur. “Don’t always wait for somebody to teach you a lesson.” she says.
It’s also crucial to ensure you have robust support systems and mentorship when expanding a concept beyond the university level — MITO Material Solutions was a VentureWell E-Team grantee and ASPIRE participant. Beyond grant funding and recognition, hands-on entrepreneurial learning opportunities and developing meaningful connections with peers were essential to nurturing the growth of the technology and company.
“VentureWell is a very big cornerstone in MITO’s growth path,” says Haley. “The ability to have a network of people who have gone through it or who are going through it was always helpful.”
The future of MITO Material Solutions is bright. They’re leading the charge to create environmentally friendly composite solutions for the country’s biggest manufacturing industries. Even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Haley explains, there is still a movement to mitigate the environmental impact of industrial manufacturing and start creating more sustainable, durable products. The MITO team is ready to provide a solution.
“Through all crises comes innovation.” says Haley. “I’ve seen it multiple times with my company alone. Whenever we’re faced with challenges, we always find an innovative way to survive and thrive.”
Learn more about our E-Team Grant program.