Spark of Innovation: An Interview with Christopher Tilton


Published: Feb. 21, 2014 Updated: 12:04 p.m.
Chris Tilton Photo
Editor’s note: Commentary's Spark of Innovation feature spotlights local engineers and scientists to encourage Orange County students to see career possibilities for themselves in science, technology, engineering and medicine. Bill Blanning coordinates this feature.

Smart Planet Technologies is an intellectual property company focused on developing sustainable high-quality packaging materials.

• What project/research are you working on? Our primary focus is to develop recyclable, environmentally ethical alternative packaging materials. This is accomplished by replacing the plastic coating with mineral composites. By removing the plastic contamination from the packaging, they become 100 percent recyclable.

• What is your specific role in moving this project/research forward? My role includes developing, patenting and commercializing our core materials technology. I also work closely with our licensees’ engineers and manufacturing staff to support the implementation of our technology into existing industrial packaging plants.

• What would be the most successful outcome of your work, and what impact would it have on how we live? Billions of plastic-coated packages are sent to landfills every year. Unlike organic materials, which get broken down naturally by bacteria, plastic will remain in these fills for centuries. For example, coffee cups have plastic coatings that protect the paper from leaking and help seal the cup seams. Our research has developed low-cost, easily scalable materials that greatly reduce and replace the plastic contaminants with natural minerals. The mineral content allows the coatings to become compatible to the paper-recycling stream. Therefore, it is now possible to recycle billions of hot and cold cups rather than sending them off to landfills.

• What about this project is important to you personally? I now have the opportunity to provide the world with a material that can drastically improve the quality of our lives and the longevity of our planet. The most important aspect of my work is making sure I leave behind a legacy of innovation and ingenuity that will benefit my children’s world and help build a brighter future through the advancement of science and technology.

• What is the very best part of your job – when do you feel the most satisfaction?From supporting environmentally conscious companies in their efforts to take advantage of our technology.

• Why did you choose this career? As I began to understand the complexity of packaging, I realized that it is a great platform for innovation.

• Who or what inspired you to study in your field? The alarming truth is that almost every single product we buy comes in some type of packaging, and vast amounts of energy and resources are used to manufacture and dispose of packaging materials. My greatest inspiration is seeing my work and innovation combat these issues and offer real benefits to society.

• What makes you particularly well-suited to this work? I am stubborn. I, like most material scientists, have technical knowledge and engineering skills. However, it has been my willingness to try, fail and try again that has allowed me to achieve so much success.

• Where did you go to college? I graduated from Middle Tennessee State University with studies in Business and Agricultural Science. I was a Distinguished Military Science graduate and started my career as an Army officer.

• During high school and college, which courses helped best prepare you for your current position? My science and math courses were extremely interesting to me and contributed to my success. Also, the discipline and rigor of military training has proved to be invaluable throughout my career.

• What is the best advice you received that has helped further your career? Try to focus on work that you enjoy. Also, recognize that time, work and effort are needed to become proficient. Be willing to make the commitment necessary to the field you find most interesting, and become a subject-matter expert.

• What advice would you give, particularly to the student who may think math, science or engineering are “too hard” for him or her? Science is not easy; it takes commitment and hard work. I challenge students to be honest with themselves and recognize that they are more than capable, given an honest effort. It seems so easy just to avoid the “hard” classes and majors at school. But if you do, you’ll be closing the doorway to an exciting, rewarding and fulfilling career.