Chronicle 20: Sowing Seeds of Change - Inside Jeff Martin’s Natural Rubber Renaissance

February 13, 2024


Rubber Chronicles

Jeff Martin near Guayule farm, Maricopa Agricultural Center (R&D), Arizona

In the world of rubber innovation, few names stand as prominently as Jeff Martin, the visionary founder of YULEX® and American Biorubber. With a career deeply interwoven into the fabric of the natural rubber industry, Jeff has not only witnessed but also actively shaped the transformation of this sector. This interview peels back the layers of his remarkable journey, offering an insider's view of the evolution of natural rubber production across eras.

From humble beginnings to natural rubber’s rise as an essential material in countless products, Jeff's narrative is more than just a personal account - it's a reflection of an industry in flux. His insights shed light on the sweeping changes, challenges, and innovations that have marked the natural rubber industry's past and present. Moreover, they offer a glimpse into its sustainable future, an endeavour to which Jeff has been a pivotal contributor.

His experiences not only illuminate the past but also cast a hopeful beam towards a more sustainable, plastic free world- a journey of resilience, innovation, and relentless pursuit of positive change.

From Scientist to Salesman

Raised in northern New Jersey, Jeff's early life was a blend of angst, creative and intellectual stimulation. His parents, passionate about literature and arts despite their modest education, instilled in him a love for learning. This environment nurtured Jeff's early fascination with science. At 13 years old, he converted a room in their old house into a makeshift lab, culturing ringworm, which was a great success but infected the entire family. 

Jeff Martin (18 years) and his dad on top of his mom’s 1964 Pontiac station wagon
Jeff and his dad on top of his mom’s 1964 Pontiac station wagon

However, being too cool for school (college) initially, his path to scientist wasn't linear as he navigated various jobs, including driving a 24-foot straight job around the tri-state area (NY, NJ & PA) delivering auto parts, and ironically, managing a petrol-gas station. Returning then to college, he graduated from Georgia Tech with a Material Science and Engineering degree.

After graduation, Jeff started as a researcher with polymers and medical grade textiles for Johnson & Johnson, followed by Kimberly Clark - both Fortune 500 companies. And with his leadership abilities, empathy and deft understanding of people’s needs, and his own competitiveness, he shifted to sales. This blend of technical knowledge and salesmanship propelled his career forward.

Crisis can be Opportunity:  HIV & AIDS in the early 90s

The HIV/AIDS crisis in the early 90s was coincident with a turning point in Jeff’s career. Before the HIV epidemic, health care providers such as doctors and dentists rarely wore protective gloves to treat patients. Then, almost overnight, gloves became a necessity- leading to an unprecedented surge in demand for natural rubber latex gloves which were always known to be the best barrier to bacteria and viruses.

Jeff joined SAFESKIN, a then startup focused on latex medical gloves, and played a crucial role in meeting this demand. Additionally, it was SAFESKIN’s introduction of the powder-free medical glove that established SAFESKIN as the market leader.  Powder gloves were the industry standard, but it was subsequently shown that they caused foreign body reactions (e.g. allergies). Hence, introduction of the powder-free glove was a solution to the reactions and became SAFESKIN's blockbuster. Jeff's strategic approach at SAFESKIN involved transforming the value of what was the industry standard - powdered gloves. The introduction of powder-free gloves that did not elicit a foreign body response, and did not require new equipment, processing and/or manufacturing, but allowed SAFESKIN to create a new tier for premium performance due to the added medical benefit. Powder-free gloves not only advanced SAFESKIN to a market-leading position but also demonstrated that innovation of a commodity products can demand a premium if value is added and branded properly. This ability to innovate and replace one harmful product with a better value proposition without additional capital expenditures (equipment) is Jeff’s signature. 

As Vice President of Sales & Marketing, Jeff helped SAFESKIN's revenue rise to $300 million in five years; and this was in a market dominated by giants like Johnson & Johnson and Becton Dickinson.

The 90s: Rampant Deforestation

The demand in gloves in the 1990s also marked a significant shift in the natural rubber industry. The era was marked by increase demand and aggressive expansion of rubber plantations, resulting in extensive deforestation, carbon emissions and biodiversity loss - huge environmental costs- that was overlooked or ignored by most leading companies and brands.

Witnessing the rubber industry's expansion, especially in Southeast Asia, Jeff recognized the necessity for better, responsible & more sustainable practices across all industries, in particular the medical and consumer the industry. "It was a wake-up call." 

Avoiding Disaster: Finding alternative rubber sources

Realizing that he had gained the necessary skills and funds to launch a business, Jeff turned his attention to a new venture, Yulex Corporation.

Guayule, an alternative rubber source
Guayule, an alternative rubber source

While still at SAFESKIN, an article titled "The Biological Nightmare" by Dr. Wade Davis in Forbes Magazine triggered Jeff's interest as it described alternative natural rubber sources, while describing how leaf blight disease in the 1900s wiped out the Brazilian rubber (Hevea Brasiliensis) industry, which was then the epicentre of the global natural rubber supply. Natural rubber was then deemed an essential material, especially with the advent of automobile mass production and the need for tires.

The article described the catastrophic consequences of what happens when there is a lack of understanding of cultivating a wild crop like Hevea. What is now considered bio-piracy, the British explorer, Henry Wickham, smuggled 70,000 rubber seeds and transported them to the Kew Gardens in London; and ultimately to regions in Southeast Asia (then French IndoChina).  The article emphasized the detriment of our global dependence on a single source of natural rubber (Hevea Brasiliensis) and the need for alternative natural rubber sources, for example, Guayule

Having witnessed the demand for a natural rubber product but also the global deforestation due to the demand, alternative sources of natural rubber naturally caught Jeff's attention. It laid the groundwork for Yulex's focus on cultivating Guayule as a domestic (USA) alternative natural rubber source, and more responsible and sustainable farming practices.

Jeff at Vermillion Cliffs, Arizona

An Expansive Vision: Pioneering a US Rubber Industry 

Jeff saw potential for Guayule, a plant capable of producing rubber in arid regions, to become the basis of an American natural rubber industry. He drafted a business plan and along with his then business partner obtained a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) license to their latex extraction patent from Guayule.

The vision was to establish a U.S. rubber industry, and Jeff's focus was not on mass-producing rubber for tires, but initially on specialized markets, especially medical products where the latex allergy issue was still a problem with no solution. It was discovered that individuals with Type I Latex Allergy did not react to Guayule natural rubber, nor were they sensitized over time. This created a large premium market for medical devices, baby/infant products and other healthcare applications.

Starting with just a handful of wild Guayule seeds and a USDA patent with no scaled proof of concept, Yulex Corporation embarked on an aggressive venture of domesticating a new crop and creating a new industry based in the U.S. Crop domestication is the process of artificially selecting wild plants to increase their suitability to human requirements, whilst bolstering genetic, diversity and agro-ecosystems.  Plainly speaking, it is the process of understanding the genetics of a wild plant and culturing it to increase rubber yield and other properties for human needs, while maintaining diversity and ecological benefits. It is rigorous exercise in basic crop science as well as transforming and translating it for commercial applications.  It is very hard to do at commercial scale. The last well document domestication of a new crop was rapeseed (or “canola” as in canola oil) in Canada in the 1950s. 

Demeter Guayule processing plant, Phoenix AZ
Demeter Guayule processing plant, Phoenix AZ

In a true American start-up form, Jeff raised initial capital from various sources, his own and that of 10 farmers in the seed round of $500,000. Yulex then planted crops and produced enough Guayule latex to make gloves, condoms and balloon products to show proof of concept to investors. Like many commercial endeavours, scaling up from a laboratory bench to commercial production is very challenging.  It required extensive R&D including a lot of capital expenditures (equipment), many scientific experts including rubber and genetic engineers, crop science, resin and latex extraction expertise, engineering and scaling up lab-bench methods to yield commercial quantities at scale and high quality etc..  The massive effort did culminate in a state-of-the-art Guayule natural rubber latex manufacturing facility (commercial demonstration facility) named Demeter in Phoenix, Arizona. Although both economic and technical feasibility were proven for Guayule, the crop science and the Phoenix manufacturing facility was not at true commercial scale and still large amounts of capital were required to scale the business and make it viable.

Ultimately, Yulex Corporation licensed the extraction technology to Eni Versalis, a major European elastomer and energy company. Other companies have now picked up where Yulex Corporation left off. For example, Bridgestone established a competitive program on Guayule also in the Phoenix area where Yulex was headquartered.  They are now producing racing tires using Guayule natural rubber, a step towards bringing sustainability to their products. Further, Eni Versalis and Bridgestone are collaborating and co-developing elastomers for the tires. These developments are a testament to Jeff and Yulex Corporation’s foresight and initial innovation and advancement of Guayule crop science.

The intellectual property related to Guayule was transitioned to a new entity, American Biorubber, which focuses on Guayule seed and plant genetics, specifically, providing high-yielding seeds for large-scale Guayule cultivation.  Jeff continues to advise and guide companies, entrepreneurs and investors working on the advancement of alternative natural rubber sources globally including Russian Dandelion. American Biorubber will support the major tire companies with advanced genetic technology for guayule cultivation. Jeff says, "We're not just creating seeds; we're setting the stage for a new era in the rubber industry."

Jeff Martin at a rubber plantation in Vietnam, 2007

Crisis is Opportunity (again): From Seed to Suit with Patagonia

The partnership between Yulex and Patagonia began serendipitously. Jeff recounts, "It was about 2013 and our Chief Technology Officer came across a blog by Patagonia criticizing the surf industry's greenwashing tactics with “geoprene”- neoprene made with limestone." This critique of the surf industry's superficial environmental claims resonated with Yulex's mission of plant-based innovations to replace equivalent petroleum-based products. The Yulex team's expertise in natural rubber led to a breakthrough. They created a small sample swatch of neoprene-like foam made from Guayule rubber and presented it to Patagonia. This innovation caught the attention of Patagonia's founder, Yvon Chouinard, leading to a significant collaboration. "Their investment and support helped us refine our product and pivot from our initial medical industry focus to the consumer industry.  We went through countless prototypes to perfect it and Yvon even tested a few of the first natural rubber wetsuits" Jeff adds.

Havea (Tropical Rubber) Seedlings
Hevea (Tropical Rubber) Seedlings

Having licensed their Guayule crop and manufacturing technology to ENI, Yulex shifted back to Hevea (tropical) natural rubber. Yulex applied years of know-how and started working with Hevea natural rubber including applying the Yulex proprietary purification process to significantly reduce protein allergens and improve its performance properties. 

Another critical component of Yulex’s approach was its early commitment to sustainability, highlighted by its alignment with the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). "We recognized the importance of responsible agriculture practices, similar to Patagonia's approach with organic cotton," Jeff points out. Partnering with FSC-certified primary and secondary producers, Yulex ensured that their natural rubber was responsibly sourced, holding themselves and the raw material supply to high environmental and labor practices. Working with FSC and now PEFC (Programme Endorsement of Forest Certification) continues to this day and a signature part of Yulex’ platform that has expanded to include a profit-sharing or Equitable Ag program from raw materials sales.

The Patagonia collaboration led to the formation of YULEX LLC, a wholly separate company from Yulex Corporation whose mission is to innovate and replace renewable plant-based products for existing non-renewable petroleum-based products. The demand for responsible and deforestation-free natural rubber in both consumer and medical markets is the cornerstone of YULEX LLC.

Jeff trekking in Patagonia, Chile

The importance of brand and values

Jeff's insight into the power of branding was pivotal in his collaboration with Patagonia. "Early on, I understood the significance of branding. I insisted on co-branding Yulex on Patagonia's products, a request that was initially met with resistance," he recalls. Despite Patagonia's initial reluctance, Jeff's persistence bore fruit. All Patagonia products made with Yulex now bear the Yulex logo, providing a significant boost to Yulex’s profile.

Patagonia’s global reputation as a leader in responsible and ethical business practices contributed to the successful branding of YULEX® wetsuits and therefore Yulex LLC. “Patagonia’s endorsement was a game-changer. It lent credibility and opened new avenues for YULEX LLC,” Jeff notes. This partnership highlights the critical role big brands can play in adopting sustainable practices and directly contributing to environmental solutions and not just demanding it.

Jeff's conversation with Patagonia's then-CEO, Rose Marcario, revealed the depth of their commitment to change. "Rose explained that their goal was not just our success but to initiate industry-wide change," Jeff recounts. Instead of monopolizing the technology, Patagonia aimed to share it with the entire surf industry, to foster wider adoption of a renewable, plant-based foam that reduces over 80% CO2e emissions compared to synthetic rubbers such as neoprene and geoprene and is recognized as generally having more responsible practices. In furtherance of Patagonia’s goal of improved adoption, Yulex transferred their foam technology to various manufacturers in Japan and Taiwan. In fact, all manufacturers offering natural rubber foam were initially taught and trained by Yulex. 

Jeff believes that the industry is now at a crucial juncture. “I think finally now (2024), there is a tipping point,” he says, reflecting on the journey towards widespread acceptance of sustainable technologies. “It takes long time to change consumer behaviours and to educate them and brands about the dangers of certain materials and/or technologies, and Patagonia recognized that early on.”  

A smallholder tapping a Hevea tree

Equitable Ag: A new global standard

Jeff's experience in the rubber industry has evolved significantly from working with large corporate plantations to recognizing the crucial role of smallholders. Initially, Yulex’s operations in Guatemala and Sri Lanka involved vast corporate plantations. “It wasn't until Liz Bui (then Chief Business Officer and now Chief Executive Officer) and I explored Southeast Asia that we fully understood the plight of smallholders,” he says. “Smallholders are in fact the backbone of the rubber industry.  Without them there is no natural rubber.”

85% of global rubber production is thanks to over six million smallholders and most of them in Southeast Asia. For over a century, the rubber industry- dominated by tire companies- hasn't adequately supported sustainable practices among smallholders," Jeff explains. This lack of support leaves smallholders focused on survivability rather than sustainability.

Liz’ involvement brought a transformative perspective. "Liz's grassroots efforts, particularly in Vietnam (where she was born), shed light on the smallholders' living conditions, wages, and their economic reliance on rubber farming in the face of climate change and volatile commodity markets that has seen rubber prices rise and fall precipitously over the past decade." This insight led to the conception of our Equitable Ag Program, an initiative to redirect over 50% of our raw material sales profits back to smallholders & supply chain to better ensure their survivability, and in the long-term secure incentives for sustainable practices.

Jeff Martin in Redwoods National Park, California
Jeff in Redwoods National Park, California

Despite Yulex's early advocacy for certified natural rubber supply chains, adoption has been gradual. Less than 3% of natural rubber is certified or traceable. However, with growing demand and regulatory changes like the EUDR (European Union's Deforestation Regulation), Jeff anticipates a significant shift. " We are at a tipping point, where we will soon face a bottleneck in supply versus demand for certified rubber," he predicts.

The Equitable Ag Program aims to set an example for larger corporations. "Our approach is to demonstrate how corporations can genuinely support equitable economic program that lifts up everyone in the supply chain, including and especially the smallholders," Jeff concludes.

Looking Forward: A petroleum-free future

YULEX LLC is poised for growth and innovation. "We've evolved from raw materials to creating alternatives for neoprene and now, fashion and textiles with our YULASTIC spandex replacement," he notes. Jeff is excited about the new products in development, showcasing Yulex's ability to perpetually innovate and lead the way into a more responsible future. 

Note:  As of November 2023, Jeff turned over the role of CEO of Yulex to Dr, Liz Bui, the founder of Yulex’s Equitable Agriculture Program. Jeff remains actively involved in Yulex’s innovation programs.

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