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Layoff leads to new career at leading-edge nanotech firm

Matt Garver of Zyvex in Columbus, OH. Photos Ben French
Matt Garver of Zyvex in Columbus, OH. Photos Ben French

Like many workers in this unstable economy, the year didn't start off well for Matt Garver. But thanks to his expertise, a burgeoning technology and a helping hand from the state, his prospects for 2009 brightened.

So did his career.

Up until January, Garver's life had been going to plan. At 27, he'd earned his chemistry degree from Bowling Green State University, landed a job with an established firm in his hometown and had settled into lab life with Ashland Chemical in Dublin.

But by the end of 2008, with layoffs rumored at the giant chemical company, he had begun feeling nervous about his future. That feeling was even more palpable when 2009 rolled around and Ashland announced in January that it would be forced to lay off hundreds of employees, including Garver.

Just that quickly, Garver wondered if he would ever work in his field again.

"I had a little money put aside, so I thought maybe I'd travel for a while. During college, I made some money tiling floors and painting, so I thought I could do that for a while if I had to," he says.

His "Plan B" was short-lived. Three days into his unemployment, he was preparing to hit the road when he got a call from a much smaller firm than the goliath Ashland, but one that staked its reputation on the cutting edge of exciting new technologies. Zyvex Performance Materials, based near the technical heart of Ohio State's west campus, was interested in Garver's skills as it looked to build its standing in an exciting new field of nanotechnology.

Zyvex, which moved to Columbus from Texas in 2007, is the country's leading firm in the development of carbon nanotubes -- hair-thin structures that offer amazing strength combined with miniscule weight, making them essential to growth in fields ranging from electronics and optics to architecture and aeronautics.

Riding the wave of technology's advances, Zyvex has put carbon nanotubes to work in everything from baseball bats to ship hulls and aircraft frames, making structures that are lighter but stronger, thinner but tougher than traditional materials.

The firm was originally part of the Texas-based Zyvex Inc., a much larger company with materials, instrument and laboratory divisions.

Recognizing a divergence of purposes, the divisions split into three separate entities in 2007. The materials group relocated its current Kinnear Road headquarters later that year with help from a $1-million grant through the Ohio Third Frontier, a $1.6 billion, 10-year state effort to establish Ohio as an innovation leader. Among the Third Frontier's purposes is helping incubate research efforts designed to accelerate the pace of high-tech commercialization and job growth within Ohio.

In Zyvex's case, it was a large factor in deciding to call Columbus home.

"At the time, Ohio was just becoming the focal point of what we call Polymer USA -- the equivalent of what Silicon Valley is to semiconductors," explains company President Lance Criscuolo. "Most all of the polymer companies are in Ohio, or within a short radius of the area, so Columbus put us in the center of the right ecosystem."

The move helped make Ohio a worldwide competitor against better-funded efforts, such as the multi-billion dollar "Composite Park" now being built in eastern France -- with dozens of companies and university researchers looking into nanotechnology -- funded almost completely by French federal money.

But the move also gave Zyvex a pipeline into a deep talent pool of scientists, like Garver, who had been working in similar fields with other companies such as Ashland, Hexion Specialty Chemicals and Owens-Corning, Criscuolo says.

With only 20 employees on site by the start of 2009, Zyvex was looking to expand its work. It dipped into that talent pool in February to hire Garver on a temporary service-contract basis. But with another $4.9-million grant from Third Frontier in March, it was able to bring the former Ashland chemist on full-time.

"We started him with a service contract, but we quickly realized that he had the right skill set to make an impact with us as a technician, working with out materials and understanding our technology," says Criscuolo.

Thanks in part to the latest grant, Criscuolo adds, further expansion is in the works, with plans to increase Zyvex's staff to 55 technicians within 18 months.

For Garver, it's not only meant full-time employment, but an entry into an exciting field in its nascent stages.

With Zyvex, he's working on research and development of new materials, rather than just trying to find new uses for long-established materials. To the layman, Garver explains that's he's currently working on monomers -- the building blocks of polymers -- to ascertain how they react within chemical structures, then incorporating them into Zyvex's huge range of products.

"It's everything I thought it could be and more," he beams.

He's also found a home.

"It's an exciting time. Nanotechnology is fairly new, and it's really starting to blow up," Garver says.

Zyvex's latest effort is a product called Avorex, which Criscuolo calls the firm's current "first-round draft pick."

The second generation of its Avorex carbon fiber-and-glass composite expands the strength-versus-weight ratio, and holds promise in conductivity as well, Criscuolo says, making it ideal to replace electrical conducting components in aircraft like Boeing's planned 787 super-efficient, long-range jets.

Meanwhile, the pace of new discoveries at Zyvex and within the industry is accelerating, with new technology finding its way into products with unprecedented speed. The excitement of seeing groundbreaking work go from design phase to application is one reason why Garver finds it very easy to see himself spending his entire career with Zyvex.

"Other places have more a corporate atmosphere," he explains, "but here we're like a small family. We work together really well, and it's more fun. It's probably why we're one of the leaders in the field."

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