Recover. Return. Grow.: NOVA Molecular Technologies Inc. marks 5 years in Sumter

October 04, 2019

Recover. Return. Grow.: NOVA Molecular Technologies Inc. marks 5 years in Sumter image

NOVA Molecular Technologies Inc. gets the sticky out.

NOVA's high-value solvent recovery and return program is like lighter fluid to tape residue. The Sumter-based manufacturing company takes solvent, messy, hazardous, waste that companies have used to make their products, and sends it through fractional distillation columns that clean it. They extract the waste and get the material back to its original form, if not cleaner.

The result is a material that can be returned to the customer for reuse. It's a cycle that is both better for the customer's bottom line - they're not paying to either burn or dispose of the waste - and better for the environment in a world where industries are increasingly aware of their carbon footprint.

Imagine if, instead of simply cleaning up a mess left behind, lighter fluid returned Duct tape to its original form.

Imagine that, instead of simply being durable residue, the sticky left behind was flammable and highly hazardous in a situation gone wrong.

Imagine how, instead of being used to hold and seal items around the house and shop, Duct tape and its residue was critical to make insulin, contact lenses and other pharmaceutical, agricultural, biotechnical products?

"There's nobody else doing this. People will take waste material and do something with it; they'll take it up the value line, take it to become something you can put into a paint thinner, but they won't take it to where they can return it back to its original form," said Greg Hoffman, vice president of operations for NOVA. "That last segment is the real science, the real art of the business."

NOVA launched 30 years ago in Houston, Texas, but four years after expanding to Sumter, the 40-employee company sold its original plant to focus its efforts on Magnolia Street. Now, its five-year anniversary in Sumter that will commence next week closely coincides with today's National Manufacturing Day.

Those efforts are more complicated than it is difficult to get Duct tape residue off without lighter fluid.

A lot goes into running a chemical plant. It deals daily with high-hazard solvents that must be managed without being able to see the material. Safety systems must be followed, permits adhered to, training ready to be employed.

"If you don't maintain a pump correctly in a flammable environment, you have a problem," Hoffman said.

Quality control in the labs, lab technicians to keep it running, chemical and mechanical engineers all must have technical training and expertise to keep the plant running smoothly. Even maintenance employees have technical certifications.

"The primary products we deal with are exceptionally difficult to purify, and it's severely capital-intensive," said Chris Adams, vice president of sales.

To put it simply, the work they do - purifying material used by the medical and pharmaceutical industry to a point where it's good enough quality to be reused by the medical and pharmaceutical industry - is hard.

"When you're talking about biomedical, if they don't produce drugs and get them to market, people's health is at risk," Adams said. "They're very concerned with making sure that material is flowing back to them."

What they do is complicated, but for Mike Clumpner, the decision to put all of NOVA's eggs in Sumter's basket was not.

After its "boom times with the textile industry," Sumter went through a period of downturns, the owner of NOVA said. Coming out of that now, he said, Sumter is "forward-thinking and aggressive."

"They have people here with a work ethic and who like to work, like to be responsible citizens, and you don't get that everywhere," Clumpner said.

He said there may be "spots" of growth and opportunity for manufacturing companies to land, but "this is a prime spot."

He took those customers downtown for dinner, where he said Sidebar, which serves barbecue and offers a wide selection of bourbon, stood out to one of the women there who was from Dallas.

What they do may be complicated, but the lifestyle in Sumter attracted one of NOVA's premier process engineers to stick around.

Chris Carano graduated with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from Penn State last year and moved to Sumter for the job at NOVA. Already, he's involved in a church and has leadership positions. He participates with Sumter Economic Development, which helps foster relationships between businesses and the community. He recently bought a house.

"It's crazy. In my first year here, I've done more things than people probably have done in 10 years elsewhere," he said. "I've been able to do what I've wanted to do because it's available here."

What he does is complicated, but NOVA's leadership is pushing him to charge forward. Longtime industry employees had to work a decade before being tasked with some of the projects Carano has completed.

Usually, Carano said, he'd be looking over someone's shoulder for years at a larger corporation. At NOVA, he is provided with resources and tasked with meaningful projects. He designed and built a new distillation column that was completed a couple weeks ago.

What NOVA does is complicated, but its impact is easy to see, even if the gunk in the pipes isn't.

Carano is spending his Saturday at the second-annual eSTEAM Festival, a free event from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on South Main Street in downtown Sumter that is geared toward kids of all ages, featuring hands-on activities highlighting dozens of local companies and their connection to science, technology, engineering, art and math.

Carano built a mini distillation column. His replica is clear so kids can see what's inside and how it will appear to get cleaner from chamber to chamber.

Just as NOVA purifies solvent to recycle back to companies, maybe Carano will continue the cycle of finding that next generation to push forward.

Credit: The Sumter Item