Written by Barb Consiglio
About three million people in the United States are allergic to latex, a rubber material commonly used to make sterile gloves in the medical industry. At best, the allergy is inconvenient. At worst, it is life-altering, ending medical careers and compromising organ transplants. EnergyEne in Wooster, Ohio, is addressing the problem with its new type of rubber that does not have the residues that trigger allergic reactions to latex.
“There are about 400 products in the medical field made of latex, the most vital being surgical gloves,” said Katrina Cornish, CEO of EnergyEne. “Without our product, those with an allergy don’t have an alternative that gives them the same feel or protection as latex gloves.”
There are already synthetic alternatives to latex, but the gloves are often stiff or uncomfortable, making it difficult for the wearer to make precise movements. EnergyEne’s allergy-safe rubber is made from the guayule plant, a shrub that grows in the desert. Rubber made with this plant is durable and comfortable even in a very thin layer, making it ideal for gloves as well as other medical products made from latex like catheters and breathing bags. Cornish says there are tens of thousands of other products made from latex rubber that could be allergy-safe using the material developed by EnergyEne.
“We are working on ways to grow and harvest guayule year-round so that manufacturers can continually receive high quality latex, making it easy and affordable to replace traditional allergenic latex with a version that is safe for everyone,” said Cornish.
Cornish was the lead scientist for the USDA’s domestic rubber program, where she first developed the EnergyEne technology. She presented her research at the first latex allergy conference in 1991. While the industry was very responsive to the technology, it lacked the traction and funding to make it to market. Knowing latex allergies are a major medical issue, Cornish pushed forward, moving her research to The Ohio State University. She turned EnergyEne into a company and licensed the process to create the consistent allergy-safe rubber.
EnergyEne received a $100,000 Technology Validation Startup Fund grant from Ohio Third Frontier, which allowed the company to partner with growers in optimal climates for the guayule plant and upgrade her pilot plant in Wooster. The company currently works with JumpStart, a northeast regional partner of Ohio Third Frontier, for advising on business decisions as the product continues to move closer to market.
Cornish says many health facilities and corporations are eager to use products made with EnergyEne’s rubber. She says the resources in northeast Ohio have allowed the company to prove that their product is a necessity and build buzz around the technology that could change the medical field.
“We’ve been able to work with people here that see our vision and want to help push the process forward,” said Cornish. “Potential customers already see the value of what we can offer, and that helps attract the investors we need to get the products on the shelves.”