Here are John Machacek’s 10 questions for the Co-Founders of Elinor Coatings Holly Anderson and Dante Battocchi.
1. Tell me your Elinor Coatings elevator pitch.
Elinor Coatings reduces downtime and costs due to corrosion and increases readiness for vehicles, communication systems, and maritime infrastructure by replacing toxic and cumbersome coatings of the past with solutions designed for modern hassle-free maintenance. We develop chromatefree coatings and metal protection for the U.S. Department of Defense and commercial use. We’re really focused right now on protecting aluminum and multi-metal assets.
2. Please tell me more about the chromatefree part of your work. That’s the Erin Brockovichtype stuff, correct?
Yes, exactly. Erin Brockovich hunted down the cause of the hexavalent chromium giving everyone cancer after it leached into the groundwater from a water cooling system. It’s the same ingredient used in paint that we set out to eliminate when we started the company. It’s a heavy metal that is great for inhibiting corrosion; it’s also great at causing cancer. Holly met Erin Brockovich at a National Association of Women Business Owners conference a few years ago. Erin is still fighting to eliminate industrial contamination. We have so many better solutions. It’s stupid that humans are using ingredients we know are deadly. Science is so far beyond that. At least we are at Elinor! The Pentagon has been slowly turning away from chromates. The Air Force and aerospace industry finally eliminated chromates in all their systems, but the other branches of the military and industry are lagging behind. Europe banned chromates across the board ages ago.
3. That was such great news when you were awarded the Department of Defense contract. What does that entail?
We started working on the first research contract with the Air Force Research Lab in 2019. We are subcontractors under the University of Dayton Research Institute, which has amazing coatings research labs. We work on corrosion and multi-metal primers. We’ve since been working with the Army Research Lab on their corrosion needs and are regularly in discussions with the Navy for similar issues. NASA was recently in North Dakota scouting out capabilities and stopped by to visit us. The interesting thing about working with the various agencies of the Department of Defense is that they all tend to do their own thing, but our research in chromate-free coatings is something that everyone can use. Aluminum used to be only for aerospace, but because of its lightweight and endlessly recyclable lifespan, it’s used in more and more applications.
4. There is a persistence to going after these research projects, and also being a research company in itself. Would you agree with that?
We started our company in 2006. New materials take on average a decade to go from concept to final approved product. Investors aren’t interested in that business model. Entrepreneurs are told constantly to fail fast, but everything requires incredible patience in our world. More patience than Holly has sometimes! It’s all about building relationships, being persistent and lasting long enough to be dependable. And obviously being good scientists. We work regularly with Cathy Lindquist at the local PTAC office and Sherri Komrosky at the local SBA office for help navigating federal contracting. We showed up at a lot of annual DoD conferences year after year just to let people know we were still around. Customers want to know that you’ll still be around when they are ready to move forward. For years we were told by investors and business consultants this was more like a hobby, or an eternal state of “prerevenue.” We didn’t ever fit the applications for start-up programs because they were always, “three years old or less.” We were 10 years old and still starting up. We took advantage of every single program, accelerator, class, workshop and grant for startups we could find, even 10 years in. We still do!
5. From the GFMEDC working with you over the years, I know that you initially attempted to produce some of your own products, but that it proved to be difficult. And a bit of a David vs Goliath situation with some of it. What did you learn from that?
We learned that it was not something we could do on our own financially or logistically in the beginning. However, we did learn the entire process of formulation, manufacturing, packaging, sales, etc. in our attempt to do it. We bootstrapped it all and paid for everything ourselves. We maxed out credit cards, home equity, lines of credit. We worked other jobs. We had three products that we were trying to introduce to commercial markets, but competition in coatings is about getting your one coating into a system, and most systems are controlled by giant paint companies you’ve heard of. No one had heard of us, and our coatings are specialty and high-end, high performance. Not many engineers or technology scouts want to be the first to ok a new coating that would be very detrimental and expensive if it failed prematurely. So they all wait for someone else to validate it. That’s why we eventually switched back to contract research. The DoD is validating our coatings, so now we’re moving back to commercialization and growing that team.
6. I know one of the products you’ve been working to commercialize combats a really big problem in our area. I love the idea of what your ZebraShield product does. What would it take to make the production of this reality?
ZebraShield really captures everyone’s attention because it’s designed specifically to prevent invasive zebra or quagga mussels from attaching to any underwater surface. In our region – and a lot of the U.S.–the zebra mussel invasion has really been devastating to lake and river life. They attach to anything–docks, lifts, boats, rocks, pipes. This is common to deal with this “fouling” in the ocean, but not in freshwater. There is no way to control the mussels right now; the DNR has tried so many mitigation techniques, but they involve some sort of chemical in the water and it’s just not sustainable or effective. Our coating is nontoxic and doesn’t leach so it’s also safe for drinking water or hydroelectric facilities, which are truly the problem. Our national security and our water supply shouldn’t be compromised because of pipes and pumps clogged with mussels. Mussels have a really special “glue” that other scientist are studying because of its amazing adhesive property. We’ve created the “antidote” to that. Plus, the coating protects from corrosion and general wear. Performance-wise, it’s good to go. But coatings are also about usability and lifecycle. How easy is it to apply? How do you recoat? Does the coating tolerate our extreme temperatures and multiple seasons? How much does it cost to make? These are now the questions we’re working on, and that takes a lot of smart people and a lot of testing equipment and all that takes a lot of money. Plus, this coating has a unique hurdle: we can’t have invasive species in our labs to test, so we have to rely right now on field trials every summer in area lakes. That slows everything down even more. We’re looking for funding for that final stage to dedicate a few people to bring it across the finish line and to conduct testing down south where we don’t have to wait for summer.
7. For the longest time you were a team of 2 or 3. How has the adjustment been growing to a team of 11, with more hires on the way?
We would be a team of 20 if we weren’t in such a candidate crunch. We cannot stress how much we need scientists and science-minded professionals! As a nation, we are scrambling to fulfill our needs for engineers, chemists, programmers, biologists – scientists in general. We really look to the universities for interns who can become employees and to retirees who can offload some of their wealth of knowledge to us. It was scary hiring people and realizing they are now depending on you to provide a stable employment. But getting great people on board is such a thrill. We no longer have to do literally every aspect of the business from bookkeeping to formulating. We now have people way more qualified than we are to do those functions. And some things we gladly outsource, like HR and payroll. We used to have sticker shock hiring any professional, but then we sat down and added up the expense of doing it ourselves–as if we even had that ability or expertise–and the numbers always came out ahead for hiring an expert and just letting them handle it.
8.What are some examples of outsourcing tasks?
Payroll, HR, managed IT, cybersecurity, marketing, tax and contract accounting, legal, insurance, manufacturing, distribution, even some admin support. No matter your company size, you need all the departments, but we only needed them every quarter or every year or every month. Not enough to have an expert on staff, but enough that we needed an expert to do it for us so we didn’t screw it up. We stick to research and technical work, business development and operations. We work in our wheelhouse and try to learn as we go from our community of experts.
9. If you could go back in time to Dante and Holly from several years ago, what hindsight advice would you give yourself?
Budget for and hire a housekeeper the day you start a business. With all the stress, financial drain, dead ends, and ups and downs, you at least have a nice, clean house of respite.
10.What can we do as a community to help Elinor succeed?
Tell everyone you know we’re hiring! And invest in clean technology. Our planet is amazing. Every day our research uncovers a new possibility to appreciate that.