Each year, the medical industry dispenses billions of prescriptions, most of them in those ubiquitous orange plastic bottles, many of which find their way into landfills.
A San Diego physician who was disturbed by the massive accumulation of that medical waste, and his role in contributing to the problem, came up with a way to minimize its impact.
Driven by the desire to help his patients without hurting the environment, Dr. Shantu Patel used his experience as a bioengineer to engineer an eco-friendly alternative to the traditional plastic pill bottles.
His invention is 99 percent plant-based; its main component is polylactic acid. Patel founded a company called Innovative Bottles Inc., and patented his blend of bio-based resins, calling it InnovPLA.
The eco-friendly material has been used to create prescription containers called ECOVials, making Innovative Bottles the first company to market an alternative to plastic for the prescription pharmacy
industry in the U.S.
Big Shoes to Fill
The disposable containers that hold medications are one of the most-used plastic products in the country. Pharmacies issued about 3.9 billion of the plastic vials in the U.S. during 2013, about 10 million little orange bottles a day, according to research conducted by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.
Even if an environmentally conscious patient tossed her bottle in a recycling bin, giant grids that shake out debris at recycling plants often cause the vials to slip down into the landfill waste.
Today, plastic prescription bottles are made out of a synthetic chemical called polypropylene. While polypropylene is recyclable and more environmentally friendly than some of its plastic counterparts, Patel’s new blend uses 42 percent less energy in production and produces 32 percent less greenhouse gas emissions, said Innovative Bottles’ CEO Danen Butler.
“Plastic waste has been in the news a lot lately,” Butler said. “Everyone is talking about it but no one has a solution. The ECOVial isn’t a solution to the world’s problems, but it will make a big impact in our particular market.”
After the company takes on prescription bottles, Butler said he intends to tackle other disposable plastic products used in hospitals and laboratories.
Innovative Bottles was founded in 2010 as a limited liability corporation, but recently got down to business when Butler came on board last year. The CEO came with niche experience in the field, including five years managing the engineering and production of plastic injection molds at Anue Water Technologies in Vista. Before that, Butler held various roles in the San Diego startup community, including growing TruSolutions from two men working out of a garage to an 85-person business earning $24 million in revenue within four years. Butler eventually sold TruSolutions for $200 million in 2000.
No stranger to fundraising, Butler worked with financial advisors at Capital Services Group to devise an unusual approach to financing. CSG developed a Web-enabled investment strategy — i.e. fancy lingo for “crowdfunding” — and raised over $3 million in capital in a few short months.
“New regulations allow qualified private citizens the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of startup businesses using their 401K or IRAs,” said Thomas Carter, CEO of Capital Services Group. “Due to the unique nature of this company’s products, we were able to generate investment capital immediately without using traditional private equity or investment banking companies, which typically take up to 10 percent in offering fees and a larger percentage of the company’s equity. This approach is a more formal and strategic level of Web-based crowdfunding.”
Butler said the capital was used to develop molds for the company’s first product, ECOVials. Innovative Bottles is currently in discussions with three of the five largest pharmacies in the country, along with a handful of midrange and independent pharmacies and some of the major hospital systems in San Diego, Butler said.
“They are primarily concerned with how cost-effective the ECOVials will be,” Butler said. “We’re not going out as low-cost leader, but we’ll be competitive.”
Butler said production of the ECOVials will begin this summer at Chula Vista-based Nypro Inc., and he expects to be generating revenue within 12 months.