Oklahoma Innovation Model seeded invention of ‘Socket-less Socket’ for prosthetics

Jay Martin discusses his prosthetic invention during OCAST interview in 2018

In a recent appearance on the Innovate That podcast hosted by Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell,  Oklahoma City inventor and entrepreneur Jay Martin told how his work with NASA inspired his company’s prosthetic innovation known as the Socket-less Socket.

Listen to the entire podcast sponsored by the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology (OCAST) and hear Jay describe his work on NASA exoskeleton designs and how it carried over to his own company, Martin Bionics.

A recap of Jay’s comments that I wrote appeared in the March 17 edition of the Journal Record. (subscription required)

However, space limitations for that article prevented inclusions of several comments Jay made about the impact OCAST and the Oklahoma Innovation Model have had on his prosthetic design work over the years.

I thought they shed some light on how critical state support of innovators like Jay can be, so I’m posting his comments in this blog.

Prosthetics displayed at Martin Bionics

All of these comments are from Jay Martin made during the Innovate That podcast:

Martin on the value of OCAST

If you look back at the history of Martin Bionics, there are several significant pieces in that timeline, in that story line that have OCAST’s name on it. At the very beginning I was practicing clinical prosthetics and had some ideas for some new prosthetic designs and ended up discovering OCAST. I went to every workshop OCAST had. I learned how to write grants, taught myself how to write patents, along with OCAST’s help in some of those workshops, and ended up winning my first OCAST grant, I think, while I was either still in residency or just out of residency. That was really the launching pad for me.

That really shaped the entire trajectory of my career. I ended up winning a number of OCAST grants over the years for technologies we were developing, but the impact to the amputee community has been significant from OCAST funding. And, obviously, Martin Bionics’ growth and trajectory and all of our staff, we can all thank OCAST for so many of those significant pieces of our journey. It’s a great resource we have here in Oklahoma. It’s incredible. I’ve encouraged so many other entrepreneurs to check it out because it has really been lifeblood for us to really accomplish some things that otherwise we would not have been able to.

Martin on the Oklahoma Innovation Model

When I was first starting, I was green. I knew nothing about entrepreneurship, grants, patents or any of that, so I was hungry to find information.

(Editor’s note: The Oklahoma Innovation Model includes OCAST, i2E Inc., the Oklahoma Manufacturing Alliance, the New Product Development Center at Oklahoma State University and the Oklahoma Catalyst Programs at the University of Oklahoma.)

All of those are incredible resources. Anyone who is young on their journey on entrepreneurship or advancing or creating, they are incredible resources and I’ve always found there are staff members in each of those organizations who are standing by ready to help, ready to answer questions and ready to go to lunch with you and download information. They are there to help us be successful. Absolutely incredible resources.

We have a real gift here in Oklahoma that some other states don’t have.

Why locate Martin Bionics here in Oklahoma?

I was born in Oklahoma, grew up in Norman, worked in Oklahoma City in my adult life. Oklahoma is a great place, and from the standpoint of entrepreneurship, the resources we have, you have OCAST and all those other great organizations there, but in addition to that we have relatively low cost of living, we have really nice people, we have a really progressive city that is amazing. It’s not too big, just the right size. We have rush minutes, not hours. It’s just a great place to raise a family, to live, to work and to play.

There’s enough industry in Oklahoma that there’s really a talented pool of applicants for hiring. So we’ve been able to grow our business compared to the coasts for a fraction of the price.

Watch a video interview OCAST conducted with Jay Martin from 2018:

OKC’s Sharina Perry invents a sustainable future with Utopia Plastix

Sharina Perry (left) showcases bags made out of Utopia Plastix’s plant-based alternative plastic material that she invented.

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.

Sharina Perry addresses Oklahoma Innovation Model group.

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.

Materials used in Utopia Plastix production from resins developed by Sharina Perry.

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.”

Utopia Plastix material in production at OKC’s Poly Films Inc.

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.”

Watch: Sharina Perry and Utopia Plastix featured on News9 broadcast

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).

A freshly produced Utopia Plastix bag after it came off the production line at OKC’s Poly Films Inc.