Co-Founders of NanoTouch Materials and creators of NanoSeptic Self-Cleaning Surfaces
Lynchburg Business Editor Shelley Basinger: Dennis and Mark, take me back to that “Aha!” moment in 2012, when you first came up with the basic idea for NanoTouch.
Mark: We both had businesses in the print and marketing industry, working with some next-generation materials, when we got an education about the latest antimicrobial technology from a client. We were eating lunch at a restaurant downtown and we noticed a mom with a young child using disinfecting wipes. We then saw another person entering the restaurant who sneezed on the door handle. Then we saw the waiter cleaning a table with a dirty dishrag. That’s when Dennis asked, “What if we could combine these new materials with some type of antimicrobial that would allow you to have cleaner surfaces wherever you needed them?”
SB: Having an idea is one thing… making it a reality is another. What did you do next?
Dennis: That’s for sure. We initially thought we should stop dreaming and get back to work with the company we already had. But neither of us could sleep since we were thinking about the potential of this new idea. We decided the first step would be to get a patent attorney to research whether the idea already existed. When he found nothing, we decided to move forward. We also had family and friends asking to invest. So, we formed NanoTouch Materials, got some initial investors, and started the process of applying for a patent.
SB: You all received a huge, $2 million grant from the Tobacco Commission in 2016. How was that a game changer?
Mark: That funding did two primary things. First, it was extremely attractive to our second round of investors, making it easier for us to raise additional capital. Second, it provided funding for some of the more expensive tasks like independent lab testing, materials for prototyping, and initial equipment to support our fabrication process. In addition, the grant funded some market research, which was pivotal. We use some really cool technology, but we discovered that people didn’t buy our products for what they did, they bought them for how they made them feel. The feeling of safety and security that people got when they saw our self-cleaning touchpoints changed how we started marketing.
SB: I remember hearing about your awards at the ISSA Interclean Conference. What was it like to present your product on a global stage?
Dennis: It was actually a really fun time. We had our little 10×10 booth at this huge international show. When we got notified we’d won the Innovation Award, I think our reaction was that we both burst out laughing. Other companies that were vying for the award included 3M, Johnson & Johnson, Clorox and Purell. They had exhibits that were the size of a city block, and they all visited our booth to learn about what we were doing.
SB: Also making headlines—your mats for TSA bins at the airport. You also did some market research connected to the product that was eye-opening about the optics of cleanliness.
Dennis: Yes, we hired an experiential marketing firm to be at the airport at 6 a.m. when the travelers started to arrive. They had representatives that conducted personal interviews with about 120 travelers. These interviews were eye-opening since they suggested that businesses that deployed visible self-cleaning surfaces positively affected customer perception. And it was even stronger than that. They found that our products produced what’s called a halo effect. This is when people make broader assumptions based on a small amount of information. In this case, when people saw our self-cleaning surfaces, they assumed the rest of the facility was cleaner as well. This study is available for download at www.nanoseptic.com.
SB: What types of habits or practices do you believe make a successful leader?
Mark: Probably the biggest is how you handle adversity. Being partners with a Marine helped me understand this concept and become a better leader. Dennis views every challenge as an opportunity and lives by the Marine Corps motto “Improvise – Adapt – Overcome.” The other leadership quality that can really help is to put your personal pride aside and always do what gives the company the best chance for success. We’re working on something that could be huge, which I can’t go into yet, but we were asked if we’d be open to having a more experienced management team put in place. Being replaced by someone who is potentially better is a tough thing for most people to agree to, but Dennis and I realize that what’s good for the company will also be good for us long term.
SB: While there have been major successes over the years, I’m sure there have been setbacks too. What types of challenges have you faced… and, more importantly, how did you handle them?
Mark: Every single major challenge we’ve had has ended up being the best thing for our business.
I answered the phone one day and it was the EPA. They said that we were technically a pesticide and we needed to be registered. I told the person that I thought they had the wrong number since we don’t use any poisons and we aren’t trying to kill bugs. Well, we got a crash course in the regulatory environment from some very expensive EPA consultants in DC. Turns out it’s not the ingredients that the EPA regulates, it’s the claims that you make. At the time, we were claiming to kill germs, which we found out was only allowed by registered disinfectants. And all disinfectants are regulated as pesticides. So after a few sleepless nights, we pivoted. We came up with the term NanoSeptic and the new class of products, self-cleaning surfaces. Now, instead of trying to differentiate our products as another antimicrobial, we are the thought leaders for this new category.
SB: Wow, who knew! Describe your partnership. How do you balance each other out?
Dennis: When you hear the phrase “two brains are better than one,” we couldn’t be a better example of why that’s true. I love the creative process, thinking up new products and applications. I never want to stop asking “what if” and to challenge what we’re doing to see if it can be done better. Mark is the more systematic, operations person. His philosophy is, “If you can get 95% of the benefit for 80% of the effort, that’s good for business.” We balance each other by having one person always challenging the status quo and the other person always trying to create systematic approaches to things. And the fact that we each have someone to share the load is huge. I truly don’t believe either of us could have done this alone.
SB: You are still settling in to your new home in the New London Business and Technology Center, just down the road from your former location. Are you happy with your move so far?
Dennis: The location and building are fantastic. We went from 700 square feet at the Center for Advanced Engineering and Research to 5000 square feet in our new facility. And we’ve got over four acres of land for future expansion. If the deal we’re working on goes through, we’ll need to start expanding right away.
SB: That leads me to my next question. What’s next for NanoTouch? What are your goals for 2020?
Mark: Our biggest goal is to raise the capital to grow the business aggressively. Once we have the funding, we’ll be adding sales and marketing positions to our management team, as well as hiring sales people that have experience in our four target markets, commercial cleaning, healthcare, travel & hospitality, and education. And Dennis already has ideas for new products that we’ll be developing. In 2020, we should see some really exciting changes.
How does the NanoSeptic Surface work?
One of the components is a mineral nano-crystal that acts as a catalyst, charged by any visible light. These nano-crystals create a continuous oxidation reaction stronger than bleach. This oxidation reaction breaks down organic material into base components such as carbon dioxide and water. And it does this without contributing to antimicrobial resistance. It’s technology over toxins.