HOLLAND — He neither sought nor expected the opportunity when it was presented to him three years ago.
Yet after working on a new non-flammable composite material at the request of a Japanese company, Dale Danver was convinced he was onto something big.
Today, the founder, chairman and CEO of Sordal Inc. in Holland is pursuing the possibilities, working to develop the material for NASA to use as an internal thermal insulator on the next generation of space shuttle and develop additional commercial applications for automobiles, aircraft, cruise ships, power plants and other uses.
“It was kind of a serendipitous type of discovery,” said Danver, a chemical engineer who holds 10 patents and has worked around the world during his career.
Danver formed Sordal Inc. in December 1999 as he was completing work as a project manager at Plascore Inc. in Zeeland, a maker of honeycomb core materials for a variety of applications. While at Plascore, he gave a presentation in 1999 to an automotive conference in Detroit.
Following his address, Danver was approached by representatives from the Mitsui Group of Toyobo Co., a top Japanese maker of fibers and textiles. They wanted to know if Danver, who over the years had written numerous papers on composite materials, could take a new material developed by the U.S. Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, and make it into a honeycomb core.
Danver, in turn, suggested they try to turn the material, known as PBO, into a paper form. He succeeded on a small scale in his lab and, after having his test verified by researchers at Western Michigan University in early 2000, subsequently applied for a patent, connected with NASA and landed more than $1 million in federal and state grants to further develop and commercialize the material.
Another $5 million in research grant requests are pending for Sordal, which last week received the 2002 Small Business Innovation of the Year Award from the Small Business Association of Michigan for its new SOLREX insulating foam that works as both a thermal insulator and noise reducer.
Danver said he knew quickly after being approached by Toyobo executives the potential that PBO, which he had never heard of previously, held in a paper form for new commercial applications as a thermal and fire insulator.
“It was very obvious this paper was important,” he said. “I would never had done it, obviously, if they didn’t come to me.”
Among the commercial uses Sordal is developing for SOLREX is flooring materials in the cabin of military and civilian aircraft cabins as well as for cruise ships, engine cowlings, headliners in the ceiling of a vehicle and insulators in the firewalls of automobiles. The product also can be used in ceiling tiles in buildings, as foam padding in prosthetic limbs, and in a recent project, as insulation in the tailpipe of all-terrain vehicles that in the initial application resulted in a 5 percent decibel reduction.
“The snapshot in the limited time we’ve been playing with it is promising,” he said.
On the new space shuttle, which NASA is due to roll out in 2010, Sordal is developing an insulating material that wraps around cryogenic tanks.
Danver has high hopes for Sordal, projecting revenues of $25 million by 2005 or 2006 and a public stock offering. He intends to maintain the company as a “technology provider” that licenses out its innovations for others to produce.
“We’re a technology provider, we’re not going to be a manufacturer,” he said. “Other people are better at manufacturing, so we let them do it.”
A Detroit-area native, the 51-year-old Danver earned a chemical engineering degree in 1973 from the University of Dayton and has spent portions of his career working in Europe and Japan. He came to West Michigan after being recruited by Plascore as a project manager, a position he took after leaving a firm in Florida where the job no longer fit with his personal and professional preference of working with composite materials.
“It was back to what I like,” he said.
As a business owner Danver places a high priority on employees and education.
The United States, he said, is “failing miserably” in science education. He and his co-workers provide numerous classroom demonstrations on science and technology at area schools. His hope is to inspire students to become more interested in science and consider it as a career.
“If we continue to do that year after year, that will help some kids,” Danver said of his involvement in the schools.
As an employer, Danver offers a highly generous benefits packages to employees that includes five weeks of paid vacation to start, with up to 10 weeks with five years of service, and sharing 25 percent of all profits with employees. The result is a loyal, well-motivated staff with a zero turnover rate.
His experiences working in Europe and Japan taught him of the need to provide employees a better balance between work and home and “to be understanding of the human factors and integrate those into the business model,” Danver said.