SALISBURY — Larry Kennedy’s life changed forever when he walked into a lab and was exposed to a large amount of formaldehyde for the first time.
“I wasn’t there but two minutes and my eyes were running, my nose and throat were burning and I felt this tight feeling in my chest,” Kennedy said. “I turned around and walked out.”
Formaldehyde is a colorless chemical used to make products like particle board. It is also an ingredient used to preserve bodies in morgues and corpses studied by medical students. Many people may be familiar with its pungent smell when they dissected a frog or pig fetus in their high school science lab.
Although a well-known and commonly used substance, formaldehyde is considered a “probable human carcinogen” under exceptionally high or prolonged exposure conditions by the Environmental Protection Agency.
“I didn’t know what formaldehyde was until this day,” said Kennedy, who at the time was beginning a career in biological samples. “This exhibition put me on this journey.”
For more than a decade, Kennedy and a team of researchers have worked to develop what they advertise as non-toxic “green” alternatives to the use of formaldehyde and other potentially harmful chemicals to preserve tissue.
“If we can do something to get some of that (formaldehyde) out of the way, that’s a good thing,” Kennedy said. “We would leave the world a little better than we found it. I think the biggest benefit of our product is peace of mind. When people go to work, they know they are safe.
Based in Salisbury, Green Solutions Group now markets its branded products GreenMBalm and GreenTissueFix. The startup was recently listed as one of 24 statewide semifinalists vying for a $50,000 grant from NC IDEA, a private foundation committed to supporting entrepreneurial ambition and economic empowerment in Carolina. North. Green Solutions Group is one of 14 finalists in the NCBiotech NC Bioneer Venture Challenge, a competition to support life science startups in North Carolina.
After Kennedy, who is co-CEO of the company with Shawna Lemon, decided to take on the challenge of developing an alternative to high formaldehyde solutions, he assembled a team to help him achieve his goal. With a chemist at the helm, Kennedy began testing various formulas on biological samples in a North Carolina lab.
The results were not always promising.
“There were ups and downs, times when I wanted to fill up,” Kennedy said.
The most difficult hurdle to overcome was perfecting a solution that allowed specimens to stay exactly as they should over time.
“The biggest challenge we had to overcome was not preservation, but it was for the internal organs to maintain proper staining,” Kennedy said. “When you open something up and start dissecting it and oxidation happens, we lose the coloring of the internal organs.”
This is especially important for medical students who use cadavers to learn about the human body.
Despite setback after setback, Kennedy did not give up.
“It’s not who I am. Every day when I get up I have a reason to keep going because people shouldn’t be exposed to these toxic chemicals,” Kennedy said. “It became my passion – or my obsession, as you want to put it.”
Eventually, Kennedy and his team landed on an ethanol-based product that works, “effectively breaking the toxic code” in tissue preservation. To test the products, Green Solutions Group partnered with Fayetteville Technical Community College’s funeral services program. Shawna Rodabaugh, Anatomy and Embalming Coordinator at Fayetteville Tech, was interested to see if the products could replace formaldehyde solutions.
“As students learning anatomy begin to open cavities and continue dissections, they are often exposed to very high levels of formaldehyde, requiring frequent breaks and some will be wearing respirators, which are difficult to use,” Rodabaugh said. “You risk a lot of exposure.”
It didn’t take long for Rodabaugh to believe in the products.
“When we tried it and realized how well it kept, I was blown away,” Rodabaugh said.
Green Solutions Group has begun forming partnerships with other academic institutions, including High Point University and Elon University, for their products to be used in educational labs. Kennedy said their solutions provide more than just peace of mind for those worried about health risks. The solutions also eliminate costs associated with hazardous waste disposal, ventilation maintenance and electricity, according to Kennedy.
After taking on the medical education market, Kennedy said he would like to make GreenMBalm the solution used in morgues nationwide and around the world. Convincing embalmers to forego formaldehyde solutions may prove to be his next big challenge. Kennedy said most mortuaries resist change because they’ve used formaldehyde for generations.
It wouldn’t be the first challenge Kennedy would overcome.
Green Solutions Group currently outsources production of its embalming and tissue fixation solutions, but Kennedy said the company would eventually like to open its own manufacturing facility in North Carolina.
Before that happens, Kennedy said the company needs to keep attracting investors. He already has his land lined up.
“There’s this venture capitalist named Aileen Lee and in 2013 (she) coined a phrase for those rare startups that could reach a billion dollar valuation called unicorns,” Kennedy said. “We aspire to be one of them.”
More information about Green Solutions Group can be found online at gogreensolutionsgroup.com.