S3 Aspires To Get Biologists Thinking Outside the Styrofoam Box

Anytime a biologist needs a shipment of something that must be kept cold, like a blood sample or biotech drug, it comes in a polystyrene (Styrofoam) box. Usually from the East Coast. Usually two or three days after the order was placed.

This all strikes Mickey Blake as pretty wasteful and inefficient. So she’s starting a business with partner Pete Kegel that she thinks will appeal to biologists’ desires to save time, money—and the world. I met Blake, a longtime sales rep for Bioline, last week at the University of Washington’s South Lake Union campus, where her new company, S3, was pitching its wares at a science fair.

This business is still in its earliest days, having made its first bio-supply shipment to customers in August. The company has secured warehouse space in Everett, where it will keep 3,300 square feet of inventory, with 21,000 square feet of backup space, for some of those lab supplies that scientists at the UW can tap for same-day delivery. She’s ordering the supplies in bulk, so she can save some cash on shipping, and pass it on to the labs—which are scrounging for pennies amid budget cuts. But the part that really caught my attention is the Greenbox, a recycled, reusable box for shipping those refrigerated products that she hopes will make polystyrene boxes in landfills a thing of the past.

“Polystyrene does not hold temperature very well, it’s not sustainable, and it’s expensive,” Blake says.

Like a lot of new environmentally-conscious products, the rub here is that customers need to pay more upfront to save money over the long run. A typical polystyrene box costs $12 with cooling gelpacks, gets used once, and is tossed in the trash, says Steve Skallerud, vice president of sales and marketing at Entropy Solutions, a Minneapolis-based thermal shipping company that makes the Greenbox used by distributors like S3. The Greenbox, made of recycled materials, costs $109, but it can be used 100 times or more, meaning it should cost $1.09 per shipment, he says. It’s supposed to withstand heat and cold better because of proprietary nanotech insulation in the lining of the box. Entropy introduced the boxes about a year ago, and already has signed up Wal-Mart’s specialty pharmacies, CVS Caremark, and Abbott Laboratories as customers, Skallerud says.

S3 plans to use these boxes exclusively, and is taking on the responsibility for picking them up at the lab when it delivers new shipments. S3’s model is really to serve as a West Coast distribution hub for big lab vendors like Qiagen, Mediatech, Sigma Genosys, and Corning, Blake says. It makes its money by taking a 3-6 percent cut of the sales it delivers.

If the Greenbox is really going to be re-used 100 times—which sounds to me like a big if, given the behavioral inertia behind trashing these boxes—then S3 might have a pitch that will resonate. Janis Wignall, a longtime science education specialist with Amgen and Immunex (and a friend of Blake’s) told me she’s hopeful that this will catch on with the labs. She remembers being at Immunex in the 1980s, and seeing those polystyrene boxes stack up in junk piles at the end of the hallways, come Friday each week. She’s hoping that the Greenbox will make the economics of a new shipping model compelling enough to force people to switch to a more environmentally-friendly model.

“I hated the polystyrene boxes,” Wignall says. “It was a problem 20 years ago, and it’s still a problem today.”

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