Engineered materials company creating solutions in UpstateApril 27, 2021
Tetramer Technologies solves materials problems from molecules to manufacturing
From a low-calorie fat replacer to fiber optic repair kits, there’s an Upstate company pioneering polymers with applications across the globe.
Tetramer Technologies, a Pendleton-based engineered materials firm best summarized as “molecular architects,” was founded in 2001 by four Clemson University professors to commercialize a new technology originally developed by Dow Chemical and slated for use in the telecommunications industry. When the telecom industry crumbled before that first technology got off the ground, Tetramer pivoted to explore other technologies.
Today, the company’s team of 25 operates in an 18,000-square-foot facility, with 7,000 square feet of wet lab space, where they explore ideas with a broad range of applications.
The company also works together with customers of all sizes, says CEO Jeffrey DiMaio, Ph.D.
“Because we do materials development, we don’t have a specific application space,” DiMaio says. “We work with people who make low-fat chocolate, we work on components for the F-18, we work with automotive suppliers, and we work with the Department of Defense – so anything that has to do with putting the right molecule in the right spot to get the right properties is where we work.”
Materials — created, tested, and identified as commercially viable by Tetramer — are used by customers ranging from start-ups to federal agencies and multinational corporations.
Rooted in the Upstate
Since its earliest days, the company has expanded its customer base, launching a fuel cell membrane project with General Motors, building a biorenewables program with Elevance Renewable Sciences, developing high temperature polyimides with an optical fiber company, and expanding its research & development capabilities.
In its early days, Tetramer employed fewer than 10 people on a part-time basis, with many like DiMaio conducting part-time research at Tetramer while holding additional jobs.
DiMaio joined the team in 2004 while serving as an Assistant Research Professor at Clemson University’s School of Materials Science and Engineering.
“I was 24 years old and honestly assumed we’d go out of business at the end of two years, and I’d have this cool line on my resume,” DiMaio recalls.
The company’s adaptability and vision kept it afloat.
Seizing opportunity from a supportive environment
During the 2008 economic downturn, the company purchased laboratory equipment for “pennies on the dollar” as life science and other industries shuttered, building out its investigative capabilities in order to analyze molecular composition, thermal, mechanical, and electrical properties as well as simulate aging and performance conditions.
In 2009, the company began serving the Department of Defense while continuing to build its R&D depth and working in a Clemson University Research Foundation incubator facility already outfitted with laboratory space. In 2013, the company purchased the 18,000 square-foot research lab facility.
Today, about half the company’s work is with government defense & energy partners, while the other half is with industry and new ventures, with customers throughout the world.
Success stories like Tetramer’s demonstrate how companies can impact the marketplace while thriving in the Upstate’s supportive environment, says Anderson County Economic Development Existing Industries Manager Teri Gilstrap.
“We are fortunate to have the knowledge base, material creation and solutions to help industries, not just in Anderson County but around the World, develop materials and be the best they can be,” Gilstrap says.
And though Tetramer operates in a former Clemson University space, the company’s academic ties stretch beyond the Tigers. Tetramer has worked with the University of South Carolina and sees growing capabilities out of Furman University and a number of statewide institutions.
Additionally, resources like South Carolina Research Authority’s (SCRA) SC Launch and the South Carolina Manufacturing Extension Partnership (SCMEP) have also supported the company’s growth.
“As I think back on all the different people and groups in the state that have intersected with Tetramer along our journey, it is pretty amazing. The economic development offices in Anderson and Oconee counties, Greenville, Pendleton, and Seneca, SCDG, SCRA, SCMEP, SC DOC, SC Launch, Upstate Alliance — the list goes on, and I’m sure I am leaving people out,” DiMaio says. “Even more, the connections within SC industry have created introductions for Tetramer throughout the world. Sometimes people underestimate the power they have when they make a warm introduction for you or just give you a little advice, but these small gestures create ripples that continue well beyond that one interaction.”
Likewise, he adds, Tetramer wants to help other SC companies. Whether that means working with them to solve their materials problems, or just a call to share knowledge and help make connections.
From Laboratory to Marketplace
Although research and development are at the company’s core, Tetramer is growing thanks to capabilities “from molecules to manufacturing.”
“We want to develop materials that can get out of the lab and into the marketplace or the battlefield,” DiMaio says. “And we can help companies solve problems at every stage of innovation.”
Take, for example, an early stage venture that asks Tetramer for R&D support.
“We might have someone come to us early stage and say, ‘We have a problem, we need help figuring out what the solution should be, and what materials to use,’” DiMaio says. “That might be stage one. Stages two and three would be doing the research and development to prove concepts and determine feasibility, and then we can scale up, take it through regulatory and go all the way to manufacturing.”
Tetramer’s team composition of 25 people in total, 30% with PhDs, 30% with master’s degrees, and 40% with bachelor’s degrees – with specializations including organic, physical, polymer, and analytical chemistry, materials science, ceramic engineering, and chemical engineering – also presents a deep “brain trust” to maximize value.
So, what does it mean to ensure new molecules are commercially viable?
Evaluating everything from whether a chemistry is scalable to cost structures to regulatory considerations to the availability of materials and supply chain capabilities.
Tetramer often works in partnership with a company’s internal R&D group, serving as an extension of the team, but with deeper material development capabilities – and the existing infrastructure and talent needed to minimize a company’s risk and time for exploration.
“At the end of the day, what Tetramer wants to do is design the material, scale it and oversee production, so clients don’t have to worry about finding a vendor,” DiMaio says. “We look at ourselves as a one-stop shop for both development and supplying the materials.”
Case Study: Epogee Low Calorie Fat Replacer
With many business-to-business applications, including confidential developments, it can be challenging for the Tetramer team to convey much of its work to the public.
Through a partnership on the company’s new ventures side, we can now taste Tetramer’s science in action, with low-calorie food products Sweet Nothings candy by HealthSmart and NICK’s Ice Cream available on Ingles shelves in the Upstate.
The foods contain a molecule developed by Tetramer in partnership with Epogee Foods, an Indianapolis-based company selected in 2020 as a “Thrive Top 50 AgTech Company of the Year.”
The company’s founder, David Rowe, enlisted Tetramer to conduct R&D, launching a more than 10-year partnership.
“He came to us and said, ‘Here’s some legacy IP, can you tell us what’s wrong with it, can you get us new intellectual property, and can you help us figure out how to scale it up?’” DiMaio recalls.
The exploration resulted in development of Esterified Propoxylated Glycerol (EPG), a replacement for fat that reduces calories in foods that has been scaled to North American volumes. “We’ve had an extraordinarily productive, creative collaboration with Tetramer that began 10 years ago with dormant technology,” Rowe says. “Together, we’ve overcome obstacles, broadened and deepened the science supporting our breakthrough food concept, and now we get to see these products on store shelves.”
DiMaio is quick to add that while Tetramer served an important role in the development of EPG, “Tetramer is one part of the team. Innovation is a team sport, it takes strategy, marketing, manufacturing, capital, operations, logistics and more. What makes it fun is the opportunity for all of us to work together with high quality innovators to bring materials to market.”
The products are just a sweet example of how Upstate minds are innovating solutions used around the globe.