In a region where venture capitalists are pouring millions into startups dreaming of becoming the next Wayfair or Dropbox, where biotechs are bursting with potentially life-saving, disease-halting drugs, Dave Smith’s big idea, born at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, doesn’t seem so big.
He’s created a molecules-thin slippery coating for the insides of containers that lets ketchup slide easily right out of the bottle (no shaking necessary) and that empties the toothpaste tube completely without rolling it up. And, with a few tweaks, his substance could also keep ice from building up on plane wings and power lines.
Smith’s story, and the viral video that helped launch his Cambridge startup LiquiGlide, provides a window inside Greater Boston’s boom as a hub of ideas, and, like many big ideas, it started with a problem.
A layer of liquid sliding over any solid surface — shampoo out of a bottle, toothpaste out of a tube — is destined by the laws of physics to slow, with the layers closest to the surface rolling to a dead stop. But what if the layer inside of a container that met the shampoo — or toothpaste, ketchup, or oil — was not a solid, but a liquid?
That, in essence, is LiquiGlide’s product. The process involves spraying two separate materials to the inside wall of the container: The first, a solid material, traps the second, a liquid material, creating what Smith calls a “permanently wet” layer against which the product can easily slide.
For his first demonstration, Smith went after ketchup. He found that a compound isolated from ordinary vegetable oil could create a slip-and-slide for the condiment, leaving no wasted residue inside the bottle.
With a small change, a similar liquid layer would work with hair gel, he found, and a different tweak worked best with yogurt. Smith quickly built up a library of materials, combinations of which dislodge any sticky fluid or gel from inside a container.
All the coatings are extracted from edible products you encounter in a grocery store. “That’s the magic,” Smith said.
Smith’s initial formula has helped identify 175 liquids and 200 solids that could be combined to yield thousands of new coatings. LiquiGlide now has two patents and dozens more pending. With 25 employees, growing to 36 by December, the startup expects to move soon to a new 11,000-square-foot space in Cambridge.
Today LiquiGlide is conducting feasibility trials funded by 27 companies in seven countries, from toothpaste tubers to paint canners to egg yolk freezers, designing custom coatings that will, Smith suggested, save customers and companies millions of dollars on wasted product. Because the food product versions are made from approved, edible products, those did not need the blessing of the Food and Drug Administration.
Beyond household products, the uses are seemingly endless.
When sprayed on power lines or airplane wings, LiquiGlide could keep both from icing over, Smith says.
Most of the world’s energy is generated by steam turbines, but those machines typically lose about one quarter of their output because tiny water droplets cling to the blades. A slippery coating that repels water could change that dramatically, said Kripa Varanasi, a young materials scientist at MIT.
“If you fix that you can slow down global warming,” he said.
For Smith, big-picture thinking started early. Now 29, he grew up outside Dayton, Ohio, fixing and building things in his garage. When he arrived at MIT in 2009, he was focused on earning a PhD, and creating something regular people would one day use.
“I felt if I start working on something that could be really important, I wanted to see it all the way through to the finish,” Smith said.
Varanasi, who before returning to MIT worked at General Electric, became Smith’s mentor. “Dave has this entrepreneurial spirit,” said Varanasi, now LiquiGlide’s chief scientific officer. “That helped us both connect very well.”
When Smith first joined Varanasi’s lab around 2009, their initial target was finding a combination of substances that would slick the insides of undersea oil pipelines and prevent clogs — which form when the petroleum product makes contact with cool ocean water — and decrease the frequency of expensive repairs.
Smith designed an algorithm that spit out combinations of solid-liquid combinations under different circumstances: What if it wasn’t oil, but mayonnaise? Which combination worked with hair gel? Or shampoo? Eventually, Smith and Varanasi focused on foods.
After Smith and a few others entered an entrepreneurship contest at MIT with $100,000 in prize money, he wanted to demonstrate how his coating could work using an everyday substance, such as ketchup. In three days, he created a coating from a substance found in vegetable oil, and shot a video featuring a blob of ketchup sliding neatly out of a coated bottle, leaving the bottle spotless. In the spring of 2012, LiquiGlide took the “Audience choice” award at the MIT competition and a $2,000 prize.
But the real prize came when his video of the ketchup bottle hit the Web and took off (it now has almost 500,000 views on YouTube).
“Our website crashed — we were getting these calls non-stop every day,” Varanasi remembered. “That was the point where we said: This is what we dreamt of — having this market where we can make this product and sell it.”
The national media converged on Smith, as did companies wanting to buy his product.
Only a few months away from defending his dissertation, Smith was caught off guard. He dropped out of MIT.
“I wasn’t planning to launch LiquiGlide for another year,” he said. “Companies were not only e-mailing us, but also going to the MIT Technology Licensing Office trying to license the technology directly from them.”
In August 2012, LiquiGlide was incorporated. That same month, they won the top prize at the MassChallenge annual startup contest — $100,000.
Some of those early callers have become prospective clients, commissioning LiquiGlide to stress test the coating with their products.
If there is reason for caution now that LiquiGlide is poised to see its product hit the market, it’s the fear that an early surge builds unrealistic expectations.
“You have to be aggressive about growing, but you can’t try to do everything at once,” said Bill Aulet, managing director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship at MIT, who has sometimes advised LiquiGlide. “You have to choose your beachhead market, and you have to grow from there, fast but not too fast.”
Nidhi Subbaraman writes for the Globe’s BetaBoston website. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org