Rice to riches: Austin startup reinvents rice hull waste

Cason Hunwick

An Austin startup has taken advantage of the commercial value hidden in a common food waste.

SioTex is an Austin startup that manufactures an eco-friendly silica powder made from rice hulls. The hulls are a waste product of the rice milling industry and are normally burned or thrown away.

SioTex figured out how to adapt a technology to fill market demands, said Lisa Taylor, SioTex co-founder and UT English alumna.

“It’s all about adaptability — that’s the biggest key to success,” Taylor said. “To be a successful entrepreneur, you have to be willing to do new things, learn new things or jump into a role you’re not comfortable with.”

The original idea came from a group of Texas State students, who understood the technology but needed business experience to realize its potential.

“I didn’t have any background in materials science,” Taylor said. “That’s not my background, but I can learn all of that. I’ll do entrepreneurship anywhere. If I can step in and develop (my knowledge necessary for the position) I’m going to take that opportunity.”

The EPA awarded SioTex a total of $500,000 to help develop and market their green technology.

“(The EPA) likes our process because we’re taking a byproduct that would normally get burned in a field as waste or buried and we’re re-using it in an energy-efficient way,” Taylor said.

They currently sell their products to the agricultural sector, where the silica powder is incorporated into the ground and helps plant growth. The company hopes to expand into the hundreds of different industries that use silica, such as paints, plastics, tires and cosmetics.

In order to expand into different markets, SioTex must find more investment funding, said Jamie Rhodes, a UT science alumnus who started with SioTex as an investor and later became the CEO. Right now, SioTex has more demand for its product than they can manage, Rhodes said.

“We have this great situation where we have more demand for our product than we can possibly handle,” Rhodes said. “It’s wonderful, but it means we have to get investment.”

The company has caught the attention of investors like UT business professor John Sibley Butler, who invests in startups around the country.

“Jamie is a good representation of a relationship between science, entrepreneurship and creating a business,” Butler said. “(He) will recognize the permutations of the applications of where this product can go.”

Butler said SioTex plays a part in the relationship between business and science.

“Without the science of flight, there would be no planes,” he said. “No computer science means no computers. Without materials science, there would be nothing. Everything that we do starts with science.”