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SHELBY SHARES: Is this the next big ... thing?

Ron Whitehouse of Plymouth, Minn., has a track record for seeing the future for certain products. Now he's got a new idea for a sustainable building material made of polylactic acid and plant materials, including leaves and nut shells.
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I agreed to chat with Ron Whitehouse at Perkins. I'd never met him. He had emailed me at BringMeTheNews.com and said he had something he wanted to show me. I’ve gotten a lot of messages like this over the years and spent a lot of time with these folks. I wish I had some of that time back.

But I’m glad I met Ron Whitehouse. He is a smallish, older gentleman of vast experience. He has traveled all over the world and now lives in Plymouth. He worked with Univac and Control Data when computers fit inside skyscrapers instead of your pocket. Ron has luck like mine. He started a company once and then walked away from it. In five years, it had $900 million in sales.

Don Shelby and Ron Whitehouse

“I can prove to you that the idea for Disneyworld is mine. I was a motion picture photographer at Cape Canaveral and a friend of mine who worked on the Atlas rocket went to California. When he returned he just raved about Disneyland,” he said.

“Where do you come in?” I asked.

“I couldn’t afford to take my family to California. So I wrote Walt Disney a 600-word telegram. I told him that two-thirds of the nation’s population lived within a one or two-day drive of Orlando. I told Mr. Disney he should build a park there.”

Ron has nerve. He urged Walt Disney to build in Orlando because it would be more convenient for Ron Whitehouse.

He continued, “So I get this letter from Walt Disney saying how nice it was of me to write and I should stop by and see him at the studio.”

Ron tried to raise the money but never made it to Hollywood.

“Then, five years later I pick up the Wall Street Journal and there is the headline, ‘Disney to Build Park in Orlando.’”

I’m growing interested in what he wants to show me. But before he does, he tells me that he went to China four times and was granted a letter of intent to start turkey farms there. He came back to Minnesota and tried to get farmers interested in trade with China.

“It was 25 years ago. I couldn’t get one farmer interested.” Ron Whitehouse just missed making another fortune.

“Now, I want to show you something,” he says.

This is what I’ve been waiting for. He reaches in his pocket and pulls out a baggie filled with what looks like uncooked tapioca.

“That’s polylactic acid,” he says brightly. “It is made from corn, or just about any plant that grows. And, it can replace plastic."

I’m beginning to feel déjà vu. I’m wondering if I will wish I had this time back at the end of my life. I feel that way because polylactic acid made from plants is already being used to replace plastics. Cargill has a plant in Nebraska churning out the tapioca. Nature Works makes and sells all sorts of plastic-looking products, like coffee mugs. Other companies are using plant plastics to make packing materials and stuff that looks like Styrofoam containers for takeout.

Then he reaches into his other pocket and brings out a 4-inch square of hard, brown wood that looks like a porous Masonite.

“Know what that is?” asks Ron.

I tell him that I don’t and he says, “I made it. I cooked up some polylactic acid and then I went outside and got a bunch of leaves from my yard and mixed it into the pot. I took the substance to a lab in Alexandria and they pressed it into this piece.”

I pick it up. It is light, feels strong. It has a hard finish and I think I can see ground-up oak leaves in it.

“You can make anything you want from stuff that grows wild and mix it with stuff people throw away,” he says. “It is waterproof, you can nail it, and drill it."

I am looking at the square and imagining desks and chairs and building beams and countertops. Ron says, “You can make desks and chairs and building beams and countertops.”

“Just think what you can make with walnut shells,” he says over the pancakes.

Pardon me?

“I got 600 pounds of walnut, peanut and pecan shells from the Fisher Nut plant in Georgia. You know how many shells they throw away or pay someone to haul off and burn every year?” he asks.

No.

“Seventy-five million pounds. And they are paying people to take it away.”

I determine I have not wasted my time. Ron Whitehouse has always seen the future, and the future vision he is telling me about is one I share. He is talking about making stuff we need and want from stuff we throw away and grow. Ron doesn’t talk about sustainability, but that’s what he’s discovered.

You need to have this material tested and engineered and fabricated into things, I tell him.

“I know,” he says, “but that would require money.”

I tell him he needs to patent the product and the idea. He says he tried. The patent office said the idea was “too broad.” Too broad? I think to myself, “Isn’t that just another way to say that Ron’s idea could become anything it wanted to be?”

So I told him that I would write a story about his leaves and tapioca. I told him he should take his idea to the University of Minnesota’s Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment.

I promised Ron that I would ask, at the end of this story, if anyone would be interested his idea. You can email me at contact@bringmethenews.com. I’ll introduce you. I think it is high time somebody start listening to Ron Whitehouse, besides Walt Disney.

Don Shelby is a veteran Twin Cities journalist and a radio newscaster for BringMeTheNews. He worked for 32 years as anchor, investigative reporter and environmental correspondent for WCCO-TV, and for 10 years as a radio personality for WCCO-AM. He has won numerous professional awards, including two George Foster Peabody awards.

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