Startland News’ Startup Road Trip series explores innovative and uncommon ideas finding success in rural America and Midwestern startup hubs outside the Kansas City metro. This series is possible thanks to the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, which leads a collaborative, nationwide effort to identify and remove large and small barriers to new business creation.
WICHITA — The sudden breakdown of longstanding hemp stigmas could be positioning Human Plant Solutions as one of Kansas’ most talked about young startups — and it’s only just been planted in the Sunflower State, said Sam Spallitta.
“I met this guy who was a prosthetic technician and he was very secretive,” recalled Spallitta, a Kansas City native and the company’s co-founder and CEO, detailing a trip to a CBD and hemp trade show in the Venice Beach, California, area where he owned a CBD company and sold medical supplies on the side.
“I’m always that person who’s like, ‘Everyone’s going to get into the sandbox.’ What’s the next thing going to be when the sandbox gets overcrowded?”
The mystery man — who Spallitta repeatedly encountered at trade shows and conventions — helped him find the answer, bellied up to the bar at the end of a long day of panels, sessions, and networking.
“He’d be the only person not drinking, just listening to everyone give him all their information,” Spallitta said. “I’m smart enough to see this and so he’s like, ‘Hey, I want to show you something,’ and he pulls out this prosthetic and he’s like, ‘I made this out of hemp.’”
Today, Spallitta is deep in business with that introspective innovator — Kyle Trivisonno, co-founder and CTO of Human Plant Solutions — as the pair hopes to turn the manufacturing world on its head, using textile hemp to create eco friendly, cost-saving prosthetics that replace the need for such materials as carbon fiber or fiberglass.
“Industrial hemp should be for textile uses, making and manufacturing products like prosthetics or other things — but we actually don’t have the infrastructure in the United States to get what’s called ‘long technical fiber’ from the hemp plant to make the vast amount of products that people talk about making,” he explained, noting that challenge could be why some local entrepreneurs in the hemp-space instead turn to CBD-based products and businesses.
Launched in North Carolina and incubated in research labs at North Carolina State, the startup recently relocated to Wichita. It’s now chasing promises of a hemp boon on the horizon in the Plains States and following a trail of grant funding — fueling its research efforts as it works backward to identify key components needed to sustain its manufacturing operation before launching a growth operation.
The early stage startup has so far received funding from the Kansas Department of Commerce and applied for funds from such entities as the National Science Foundation, the National Institute for Aviation Research, and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Spallitta said.
“I had applied for a USDA grant and the USDA moved their headquarters back to the Midwest. I called [Trivisonno] and I was like, ‘We’re moving to the Midwest. We’re going to follow the USDA,” he said.
As Human Plant Solutions works to make a name for itself, Spallitta sees significant opportunity in working with the University of Kansas and Kansas State University. But the biggest driver of growth for the startup could come from new professional connections, he said.
“The secretary of commerce, David Toland [now Kansas lieutenant governor], went to KU. I’m working with KU’s biomechanical engineering department and six of their engineering students are doing a capstone project, developing a pediatric running blade out of hemp,” Spallitta said of serendipitous collisions he’s encountered while on the ground in Kansas and how taking longshot risks can open new doors.
“I reached out to [Toland] and just was like, ‘Hey, thank you for working with us. Just wanted to tell you I’m working with your alma mater,’” Spallitta continued. “He had no clue who we even were. He had just signed a signature to give us some funding. But that email got him to do a Zoom call with me — and now I’m meeting with like eight different people to look at opportunities for even more funding.”
Such a reality isn’t one many in the hemp space experience, Spallitta admitted, but he’s confident Human Plan Solutions could play a role in further changing the conversation around hemp and helping established investors and leaders see it in a new and transformative light.
“When [Trivisonno] made the [original prosthetic] prototype, he had a friend — Mark — who was a below knee amputee. Mark’s been wearing that original device for four years. He’s competed in a 70-mile Ironman competition in that device and most recently he ran the [virtual] Boston Marathon in it,” Spallitta said, noting the impact the hemp-made prosthetic has made in a real, human life and ways its weathered intense use.
“The future for us right now is really to manufacture prosthetics. … I’m working backward to the plant,” he said of what’s to come as the company settles into the Kansas entrepreneurial and manufacturing space.
Spallitta aims to make Human Plant Solutions a leader in testing hemp materials, starting with building out its supply chain from long technical fiber imported for other countries.
Click here to further explore Human Plant Solutions and its promise.
This story is possible thanks to support from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a private, nonpartisan foundation that works together with communities in education and entrepreneurship to create uncommon solutions and empower people to shape their futures and be successful.