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Florida Company Recycles Human Hair

World Response Group, a Florida City company, buys human hair from China and India, recycling it to produce mats used to help plants grow and to clean up oil spills.

World Response Group says its SmartGrow mats promote growth (plant on right) by retaining soil nutrients and releasing nitrogen when they biodegrade.

SmartGrow mats, which the company sells in disks ranging from 6.25 inches to 14 inches, go in the bottom of pots to promote plant growth. The company doesn’t claim that the product is a fertilizer but says the 15% nitrogen in hair is gradually released into the soil, resulting in bigger, stronger plants. The mats can also be cut to fit around the plant on top of the soil. There it acts as a mulch, eliminating the need for herbicides and reducing the amount of water needed, says CEO Blair Blacker.

“We’ve sold over 3 million mats,” says Blacker, who says the company is focusing on commercial growers as well as home gardeners. SmartGrow mats sell for $3.94 for a pack of two on the company’s website (smartgrow.us) and in some Dollar General stores.

Both the SmartGrow mat and the OttiMat, an oil spill cleanup product that was the company’s original product, biodegrade in 18 months or less.

Phil McCrory, then an Alabama hair stylist, came up with the idea for the OttiMat, after watching news reports of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. When McCrory heard how otter fur traps oil, he decided to conduct an experiment on human hair. In the early 1990s, he patented the technology and later sold it to World Response Group, where he works today. The mat is 99% hair and 1% polypropylene and can be reused up to 100 times.

Sales of the OttiMat had lagged until late last year when an environmental group used thousands of OttiMats, which sell for about 58 cents each, to help clean up a 58,000-gallon oil spill in San Francisco Bay. “We were thrust back into that business,” says Blacker.

Both the SmartGrow mats and OttiMats are manufactured in China, but Blacker hopes eventually to move some production to the U.S. and South America because of the high cost of shipping from Asia. It’s likely that the company will still use human hair from China and India, however, because hair from the U.S. is often chemically treated. It’s unlikely that animal hair could be used as a replacement because there’s no ready collection process.

Blacker projects companywide sales of $800,000 in 2008 and a dramatic ramp-up to $10 million in 2009. “We’re going to grow like crazy,” he says. To fund development so far, the company has raised $2 million from 65 investors. World Response Group was one of 15 companies invited to make pitches at the Florida Venture Forum’s first Early Stage Venture Capital Conference in May, where it planned to try to raise an additional $2.5 million.