Market View: Seven Key Companies in Self-Healing Materials

The self-healing materials/coatings is at an early stage of market development, but n-tech already can identify the likely business structure that will emerge for this segment of the smart materials sector. We’ve identified eight specific ones as current and future leaders for this technology, arranged into two groups — big multinationals and important startups — and how they are leading the charge to bring self-healing technologies into commercial readiness.

As a bonus, we’ll throw in one big end-market company we think is showing the way for self-healing technology’s value in a very large mass-market context.

Role of the Multinationals: Leadership and Support

At the top of the self-healing materials power structure, in terms of the resources that they can bring to the table, are some giant specialty chemical and glass firms. They are already a source of finance for R&D, which we expect to continue, and they are also directly active in technology development at least to a limited extent. In a broader sense, we think they can not only push ahead with a functional smart coating, but also seek out and support smaller partnerships.

BASF has been early to recognize the potential for self-healing materials. Its venture capital arm, BASF Venture Capital, led a $3 million Series A financing for SLIPS Technologies, a startup firm which we discuss below. The two also have a joint development agreement around thermoplastic polyurethanes.

Bayer has been developing self-healing surfaces based on crosslinked polyurethane coatings, which have their own “polymer memory” — when a scratch occurs, hydrogen bonds reposition themselves in their original formation and the scratch disappears. (We’ll talk about this hydrogen ability later regarding another company, too.) The waterborne coating system can be can be tailored for a specific application by varying the molecular structure. Reportedly it has been shown to work with automotive refinish coatings and wooden furniture.

Evonik, like fellow German specialty chemicals firm BASF, has been involved in early development work in self-healing polymers. Specifically it has partnered with the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) on a chemical crosslinking reaction that ensures good short-term self-healing properties of the material under mild heating. The self-healing properties can be transferred to a large range of plastics. Apart from self-healing, the material can be molded well. Potential applications for this material are said to include automotive and aircraft industries.

Start-ups: Wellsprings of Innovation

Our sense of the self-healing market is that much of the innovation in this space will come from new technology-oriented start-ups. We expect such start-ups to attract investment from the large specialty chemical firms, and that venture capitalists will get into this act as well. (And as noted above, in some cases these may be one and the same.) A few interesting start-ups in the self-healing materials space are mentioned below, and we expect more to emerge.

Autonomic Materials’ (AMI) very name suggests advanced self-healing materials, and the firm has attracted some VC money, raising $3.9 million in a 2012 Series B funding. The spinoff from the University of Illinois’ Beckman Institute holds the exclusive license to an extensive suite of intellectual property around microencapsulated self-healing polymers.

The company’s current focus is on coatings, but it expects to broaden out to cover adhesives, sealants, elastomers, and structural composites. R&D efforts are focused on developing and characterizing new self-healing systems for demanding steel applications, aluminum substrates as well as non-metal adhesive and sealant applications. AMI’s current coatings development projects are split about 65/35 between coating manufacturers and large end-users — one very recent update claims it’s received initial interest from Caterpillar.

Sensor Coating Systems (SCS) was spun out of Southside Thermal Sciences in the U.K. in 2012, with sensor technology based on luminescence materials for engineering applications in demanding environments. Although not a pure-play self-healing materials company, this startup has been developing a self-healing thermal barrier coating for turbines.

SCS has established a luminescence laboratory and enjoyed access to additional laboratory space at Imperial College London. It also owns two Rolls-Royce Viper 201 engines located in a dedicated testing facility at Cranfield University, outside Central London.

SLIPS Technologies was formed less than a year ago to commercialize an omniphobic “liquid-infused” slippery polymer coatings approach, developed through Harvard University and the Wyss Institute. This technology matches surface structuring and chemical functionalization with infused liquids to overlay a lubricant on a surface. This enables many “smart” capabilities, one of which is self-healing and scratch resistance; slice it with a razor blade and fills back in.

SLIPS also represents the kind of partnership we envision between big and small companies, through its aforementioned funding and JDA ties to BASF.

We should also note that at the bottom of the self-healing materials “power structure” are some small firms, generally tiny and geographically localized, which supply coatings to residential consumers (mostly for furniture) and to the automotive aftermarket. None currently supply what could be called truly “self-healing” products, but they are very active in the scratch elimination business. However, as self-healing coatings begin to mature, it’s not impossible that some of these firms may find a niche with consumer-grade self-healing coatings.

Case in Point: LG and Self-Healing Phones

In n-tech’s view, LG’s G Flex 2 smartphone is a harbinger of where self-healing in the mobile communications sector is headed. This phone uniquely brings together a self-healing case, coupled with flexibility designed to provide a new level of resiliency for mobile devices.

Reportedly the material that forms this phone’s case can patch up minor scratches in around 10 seconds, and deep scratches such as inflicted by a wire brush or a knife in a few minutes; the warmer the room is, the faster the scratch is healed. Details are scant but it seems most likely to us that this probably involves some kind of capsule approach. One industry report suggested that the material utilizes hydrogen atoms, which as described above can re-align themselves back into their original places and heal a scratch.

Interestingly, the G Flex 2 is also semi-flexible. Flexible displays have begun to appear in the past few years, mostly as an aesthetic play (e.g. curved TVs) or to facilitate manufacturing (R2R manufacturing). By contrast, the G Flex 2’s flexibility is about self-healing — reportedly it can be placed face-down and squashed completely flat without causing any structural damage. LG says it tested this capability up to 100 times with as much as 88 pounds of pressure and the phone has never cracked.

This is not just a matter of novelty. The iPhone 6 and 6s, which are larger than previous generations of iPhones, have had problems with damage from users putting the phone in their back pocket and then sitting down. An intrinsically flexible phone is also less likely to be permanently damaged when dropped.

Paving the Way to a $7B Market

n-tech projects self-healing technologies across major market segments — consumer products, construction, transportation, energy generation, healthcare, and military — to explode from just $48 million today to $725 million by 2018 and $7.4 billion by 2022. The seven companies described above — and many more to follow, inspired by them — are early leaders in keeping the market on this track for some very impressive growth and revenue opportunities.