News Release

Detroit startup developing eco-friendly marine coating for ships and boats

Grant and Award Announcement

Wayne State University - Office of the Vice President for Research

DETROIT - Repela Tech LLC, a Detroit-based sustainability tech startup from Wayne State University, was awarded a National Science Foundation (NSF) Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) Phase II grant totaling $993,788 for research and development on a patent-pending (WSU Tech ID 20-1601), first-of-a-kind, safe antifouling marine coating.

The project, "STTR Phase II: The Next Generation of Environmentally Friendly Coatings for Marine Antifouling," will further develop a novel non-toxic antifoulant that keeps the hulls of marine vessels clear of biofouling without the environmental harm imposed by current antifoulant products.

Biofouling is the accumulation of algae, barnacles and other marine organisms on underwater surfaces such as the hulls of ships and boats. Biofouling can cause major issues, such as drag, which slows down water vessels and increases fuel consumption by as much as 40%. For the global shipping industry, this increase imposes an additional annual fuel cost of $36 billion. This excess fuel consumption adds 386 million tons of CO2 emissions to the atmosphere. More than 90% of antifoulants in the market today contain copper, a toxic biocide harmful to the marine ecosystem. Repela's project will develop a competitive antifoulant that avoids harmful environmental impacts.

"The importance of this award from NSF cannot be overstated," said Sheu-Jane Gallagher, Ph.D., co-founder of Repela Tech. "The funding will enable Repela to advance its innovative coating technology, which promises to protect the Great Lakes and other precious bodies of water and thereby contribute to a more sustainable future for all."

The objectives of the next phase of the project is to fine tune the formulation of the novel coating to meet marine end user performance requirements and regulatory benchmarks and to demonstrate small-batch production capabilities. The work will lead to a rigorously tested, high-performing eco-friendly antifouling solution that will be ready for the marketplace.

The company was co-founded by Zhiqiang Cao, Ph.D., professor of chemical engineering and materials science in Wayne State University's College of Engineering, and Edward Kim, a former mentor-in-residence at the university and an angel investor.

"Repela is a great example of how providing gap funding -- such as TDI and ADVANCE grants -- and mentor support can really help to de-risk the technology and accelerate the process of finding a product-market fit," said Kim. "To date, Repela has raised more than $1.3 million in grant and angel funding, and much credit goes to Wayne State's Office of the Vice President for Research and Dr. Joan Dunbar, retired associate vice president for technology commercialization, who provided critical support during the very early stage of IP development."

In 2019, Repela received two NSF grants - a $225,000 STTR Phase I grant, and a $50,000 I-Corps award. In 2018, Cao received an ADVANCE grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation that aided in early stage proof-of-concept research.

The grant number for this National Science Foundation STTR Phase II award is 2036498.


Wayne State University is one of the nation's pre-eminent public research universities in an urban setting. Through its multidisciplinary approach to research and education, and its ongoing collaboration with government, industry and other institutions, the university seeks to enhance economic growth and improve the quality of life in the city of Detroit, state of Michigan and throughout the world. For more information about research at Wayne State University, visit

About Repela Tech: Repela Tech is a sustainability tech-focused startup spun out of Wayne State University to bring to market innovative and eco-friendly advanced material technologies for the marine protective coatings market. The company was founded in 2019 and is based in Detroit. For more information, contact Sheu-Jane Gallagher at or visit

About the National Science Foundation's Small Business Programs: America's Seed Fund, powered by NSF, has helped startups and small businesses transform their ideas into marketable products and services. The program focuses on high-risk, high-impact technologies that show promise, but whose success hasn't been validated. Each year, the program awards $200 million in funding to entrepreneurs across the country. Its goals are to foster innovation and help create businesses and jobs in the United States, and companies seed funded by their program have gone on to great success. The program is congressionally mandated. For more information, visit

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