Editor’s note: Along with my colleagues from the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science & Technology (OCAST), I recently had the opportunity to meet Oklahoma City innovator Sharina Perry and hear the story of her remarkable journey as an inventor and entrepreneur. This is the story I wrote from that visit:
By Jim Stafford
Her audience sat spellbound for more than an hour recently as Sharina Perry shared her journey into entrepreneurship and her vision for her Oklahoma based companies all centered around developing and distributing her invention of Utopia Plastix.
Representatives from the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology (OCAST), the Oklahoma Manufacturing Alliance and the New Product Development Center at Oklahoma State University heard Perry’s tale about overcoming numerous obstacles to advance her invention.
Collectively, those organizations are part of what has become known as the Oklahoma Innovation Model (OIM), which supports innovation and technology advancements that help diversify Oklahoma’s economy.
Perry founded Utopia Genetics to distribute products made with Utopia Plastix, a trademarked product, as well as Utopia Solutions that makes Utopia Plastix.
Utopia Plastix was developed as patent-pending, plant-based alternatives for petroleum-based plastics such as plastic bags and single-use straws.
But Perry’s journey began with a different mission.
Masked for COVID protection, the OIM group listened to the presentation at Oklahoma City’s Poly Films, Inc., as Perry described how she began searching for plant materials that could help reduce incurable tumors that ravaged her nephew.
The prohibitive cost of clinical trials to gain Food and Drug Administration approval for any potential new drug delayed that quest.
However, it opened a door for Perry to take what she had learned into a different direction.
“In the process, I realized that God had a plan,” she told her audience. “I’m a person of faith, and Utopia is about my journey and using my gifts and the gifts of others.”
She pivoted into compounding plant-based products as an alternative for petroleum-based plastics after learning that Starbucks was offering $10 million for the first successful alternative to single-use plastic straws.
In some areas of the country, single-use plastic straws are now banned, as well as plastic bags that are popular with retailers.
Perry is not a chemist. Instead, she had a long career in satellite and cable industries before taking her first steps down this new path.
So, she dove into the research, working to create a strong paper straw made of Hemp. She provided the paper for the first Hemp straw created by Hoffmaster, Inc. Once produced, she learned that hemp would not be feasible for use as a straw that would be a food contact item and current cost of production would not be feasible.
Research led her to some important discoveries.
“I learned of other plants that had stronger fiber, a stronger core, had a greater yield per acre and actually performed better than hemp at a lower cost per seed,” she said. “And what we found out was that most companies had not heard anything about using plant material in their plastic applications.”
Perry is African American and female with no manufacturing background. Perhaps it’s no surprise that when she reached out to Oklahoma’s manufacturing community for assistance, there was lukewarm response.
“When I started on this journey, I thought having access to what I needed was going to be easy in Oklahoma,” she said. “It was not.”
So, she found a company in Texas that would compound her plant resin into pellets that could be used in the process.
Eventually, Perry perfected a process that resulted in usable plastic alternative straws, and contracted with a straw manufacturer, GCA Products, Inc., in Dallas.
“We’ve had a ton of people come in and say they have the next-best resin,” said Hunter Dunlap, vice president of Operations for GCA Products. “But Sharina is one of the only ones that stayed alive. Through Sharina’s dedication and partnership, we are actually producing straws as we speak for (food product distributor) Ben E. Keith.”
Perry also established a relationship with Poly Films., Inc., which has successfully used her plant-based material to produce what are known in the industry as blown plastic bags.
Kevin McGehee, vice president of Poly Films, guided the OIM group on a tour to watch the bags as they were produced, handing out finished product as souvenirs. Poly Films is a family-owned manufacturer that produces plastic bags and other products for a wide range of clients.
The bottom line, Perry said, is that she has created a business model that benefits farmers, processors, manufacturers and distributors. The crops she uses are high yield “rotational” crops often used to replenish the soil after wheat or corn has been grown on it.
“It’s just kind of a win-win-win all the way down,” GCA’s Hunter said. “We saw that early on, and decided to start the partnership with Sharina. It’s gone very well.”
Perry shared some potential uses that her plastic alternative could be used in addition to single-use straws and plastic bags. That includes plastic cutlery, building materials, roofing products, even diapers. And more.
“There are so many lanes our products can be used in,” she said. ““It’s bigger than me. I could have sold this a long time ago. I get offers all the time.”
Before the meeting ended, representatives from the Oklahoma Innovation Model eagerly discussed ways to connect Perry with more Oklahoma manufacturers and industries such as aerospace.
“This has been fantastic,” said Dan Luton, OCAST programs director. “Not only the technology and the product, but also your story and how it got here. There are people who could use your product now; they just don’t know you are here.”
Utopia Plastix did not win the $10 million Starbucks prize. It started too late, but Perry has journeyed far beyond that original incentive.
“We can now use agriculture to replace everyday items, and that creates a sustainable model for our community and our country,” Perry said. “There was already a demand and we want people to know that we are here to help satisfy it. We want Oklahoma to be positioned to do it, and to benefit disadvantaged and minority farmers, as well.”
That’s the win-win-win that Perry is seeking.
Jim Stafford writes about Oklahoma innovation and research and development topics on behalf of the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science & Technology (OCAST).