Wayne State spinoff Repela Tech awarded two competitive National Science Foundation grants for marine coating technology

Repela Tech, LLC, a Detroit-based materials technology startup, was awarded two National Science Foundation grants in 2019, including a $225,000 Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) grant and a $50,000 I-Corps award for research and development on a patent-pending eco-friendly anti-fouling technology for the marine and shipping industries.

The company was co-founded by Zhiqiang Cao, associate professor of chemical engineering at Wayne State University, and Edward Kim, an entrepreneur and investor who also serves as an advisor for the James and Patricia Anderson Engineering Ventures Institute.

The highly competitive grants awarded reflect a commitment from both Repela and NSF to bring a disruptive innovation to replace toxic anti-fouling coatings — those that are applied to the outer hull of a vessel to slow the growth or facilitate detachment of plants, animals and other organisms — that are currently being delivered to and utilized by the industry.

Unlike fundamental research grants, the NSF STTR program supports startups and small businesses in pushing inventive products or services out of the lab and into the marketplace. Through I-Corps, grantees benefit from a network of established entrepreneurs who understand best practices of customer discovery and how to identify valuable product opportunities.

“We are pleased to partner with NSF to develop and commercialize our anti-fouling coating technology,” said Kim. “The goal of the Phase 1 award is to advance our translational research, foster strategic relationships and accelerate the commercialization efforts.”

Current marine coating products leach biocides into the water, indiscriminately killing marine life around the vessel. These chemicals, which have been subject to increasing global regulations, can remain active in river and lake beds for many years. Repela is introducing a non-biocide material with equivalent anti-fouling performance as well as other benefits.

“It can deliver a disruptive coating solution that can improve vessel maneuverability, increase fuel efficiency, and address environmental concerns by replacing current toxic coating products,” said Cao.

Commonly used anti-corrosion and anti-fouling products contain hydrophobic substances. Hydrophilic materials, known for their high capacity in resisting biofouling, tend to dissolve in water.

“The key innovative feature of this technology is that it improves the poor stability and durability challenge of super-hydrophilic polymer coatings when applied in the water environment,” said Cao. “This coating material is effective against biofouling while achieving durability and robustness required in aqueous environments.”

Repela has received extensive support from the Wayne State University Technology Commercialization office, which provided incubation funding and mentorship, and the Mike Ilitch School of Business, which delivered business model guidance through its Entrepreneurship and Innovation program.


Wayne State University is one of the nation’s pre-eminent public research universities in an urban setting. Through its multidisciplinary approach to research and education, and its ongoing collaboration with government, industry and other institutions, the university seeks to enhance economic growth and improve the quality of life in the city of Detroit, state of Michigan and throughout the world. For more information about research at Wayne State University, visit http://www.research.wayne.edu.

About Repela Tech: Repela Tech is an advanced materials technology company that produces its unique, patent-pending anti-fouling technology to produce environmentally friendly coating applications for the marine industry. Founded in 2019, Repela is located in Detroit, Michigan. Please direct all inquiries to info@repela.co

About the National Science Foundation's Small Business Programs: America’s Seed Fund powered by NSF awards $200 million annually to startups and small businesses, transforming scientific discovery into products and services with commercial and societal impact. Startups working across almost all areas of science and technology can receive up to $1.5 million in non-dilutive funds to support research and development (R&D), helping de-risk technology for commercial success. America’s Seed Fund is congressionally mandated through the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program. The NSF is an independent federal agency with a budget of about $8.1 billion that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. To learn more about America’s Seed Fund powered by NSF, visit: https://seedfund.nsf.gov/.


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