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Company’s cups runneth over

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One of the things I loved about my time at the Tri-City Regional Chamber of Commerce was watching a great idea emerge from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and serve as the foundation for a private-sector company.

Companies like Advanced Medical Isotopes, specialty tool maker Intellegration, and Perpetua Power Source Technologies, which develops renewable thermoelectric energy, all have roots in the Richland lab. And they all serve as terrific examples of how research and private enterprise can work together.

I was reminded of this recently when I toured MicroGREEN Polymers, a company that turned a research discovery at the University of Washington into a high-tech plastic cup that’s proving to be a hit with airlines.

Tom Malone, president and CEO of MicroGREEN, is coming to the Association of Washington Business’ Spring Meeting in Spokane in May to serve as the keynote speaker at our annual Environmental Excellence Awards, so I was eager to learn more about his company and its environmentally friendly product.

The technology behind the cup was developed at the UW in the mid-1990s, but had not been used until MicroGREEN co-founder Krishna Nadella came across it when he was a mechanical engineering student there 10 years ago.

Nadella recognized the potential for a commercial product and helped start a company that’s become a source of high-quality manufacturing jobs in Snohomish County.

The science behind the cups is both simple and amazing: Recycled plastic bottles are turned in into chips, melted and injected with carbon dioxide, doubling the size of the plastic and turning it white. One water bottle can make more than four InCycle airline coffee cups.

Last year, Seattle-based Alaska Airlines began using MicroGREEN’s InCycle cups for its flights, and United Airlines followed suit early this year by announcing that it would stop using Styrofoam in favor of the InCycle cups.

Airlines like the fact that MicroGREEN’s cup is lightweight, less expensive than other cups, made from recycled water bottles and completely recyclable. It’s also insulated, meaning it doesn’t require a cardboard sleeve with hot beverages.

And Airlines aren’t the only ones that like the cups. Another local success story, Costco has been selling them since 2012, and MicroGREEN is expanding quickly to keep up with demand. When the current expansion is completed, the plant will be capable of producing 600 million cups per year.

MicroGREEN currently employs 58 people and could grow to 200 by the end of the year.

Those are the kind of manufacturing jobs that our economy needs more of, but they only happen when we have the right mix of investment.

It’s a good thing for Washington’s economy that the founders of MicroGREEN chose to locate their manufacturing facility in Snohomish County, up the freeway from the lab where the discovery led to its new cup. And it’s good that they’re expanding here.

It’s not always the case. In fact, only a small handful of the dozens of private-sector companies that are connected to the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory are located in the Tri-Cities.

That’s one reminder that Washington must not only invest in the research universities that produce the inventions and discoveries that lead to new products — and occasionally whole new industries — but also in the community and technical colleges that train the workers who find jobs in the companies that make them.

Kris Johnson is president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s chamber of commerce. He was president and CEO of the Tri-City Regional Chamber of Commerce from 2002-2007.