No one can accuse Bob Goulet, president of Saprex, of thinking too small. His vision is to make the Charlotte region the go-to place for the development and manufacturing of advanced materials. Towards this end, he is working to provide solutions to industry risks and problems—one product at a time.
Started in 2009, Saprex seeks to expedite the innovation and development cycle for advanced material and subsequent products. Its customers are manufacturers who are challenged to find and manage solutions to risks involving extreme environments such as fire, high-heat, cut or chemical attack.
Saprex’s Advanced Materials Lab is located in Grigg Hall on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. There, in partnership with the University’s Charlotte Research Institute and local area manufacturers, Goulet conducts research on advanced materials and collaborates with business and industry to apply those materials to specific manufacturing needs.
“Our value lies in the fact that we are helping to integrate a lot of traditional textile companies to do innovative things,” says Goulet. “This will strengthen the economy and provide stable jobs.”
As the company’s primary scientist, Goulet has developed a line of products aimed at industrial safety and beneficial to a variety of end-users such as firefighters, electrical workers, welders, industrial bakers, race car drivers, steel mill workers, mechanics, military personnel—and even the NASCAR pit crews.
Saprex Axis, an exhaust insulation system which will aid the complex diesel emission systems to perform optimally in large trucks, has been approved by several large truck makers.
“We’ve developed a system that will easily stretch over the pipe and then become rigid once it’s heated up. It must perform from -50 degrees F. to 1,300 degrees F. That’s a big challenge from a fiber perspective.”
Speaking enthusiastically about recent innovations, Goulet picks up a piece of fire-resistant, aerogel-infused fabric which uses technology coming out of the space program. According to Goulet, it is the lightest insulation known to man, consisting of 97 percent air.
Saprex is currently marketing four product lines and set to launch three more in the first quarter of 2013. Saprex FLEX is an innovative and patent pending composite material based on knit construction that allows it to be easily shaped and molded to an endless variety of parts.
Saprex AXIS is an infinitely customizable, high-temperature insulation system. Saprex REACT a flame resistance material that reacts to high-heat by releasing a flame retardant to extinguish itself. This material can be found in many of the race cars including NASCAR. Saprex ARMOR is a line of cut and puncture resistant materials used in the Mechanix Wear ArmorCore line.
Saprex customers are diverse. Mechanix Wear, for instance, is a well-recognized company always looking for the newest technology and innovation. A sponsor of NASCAR, the company has a product called ArmorCore which has been built into gloves that provide the highest level of cut, puncture and abrasion resistance available.
Lincoln Industries reached out to Saprex when they needed help with high-heat insulation. They are a manufacturer of exhaust system pipe and were looking for an innovative high-heat insulation. Saprex also works with NASA, and the U.S. military.
Saprex is a young company in an evolution. They started with a few development customers. By the end of 2013, 75 percent of revenue will come from material sales, according to Goulet. “This was a breakout year for us,” says Goulet nodding. “Next year looks even better.
“Saprex serves as a fairly unique business model. We are offering rapid research and development along with integration of a global supply base so that we can provide the best solution quickly. In our industry you typically find that good innovators don’t collaborate well. While there are some large firms doing good work, I don’t know of anybody in our space who is offering an innovative, integrated solution with speed,” continues Goulet.
Benefits to partnering with the University’s Charlotte Research Institute, are multifold.
“They have a high level of infrastructure here that we as a small company couldn’t afford but can definitely use,” says Goulet.
The University furnishes Saprex with a wet laboratory in a building permitted for research. Perhaps the greatest benefit is the psychology of knowing that there is help and support around.
“We want to be leaders in innovation and that requires us to be where people are pushing the envelope in all different directions. Plus, the University has a lot of technology available for license. We are always interested in new technology” says Goulet.
The University’s primary concern in partnering with companies to further research, innovation and product development is how the work will contribute to the state economy and job growth and stabilization. “From fiber, yarn and fabric construction, we help maintain and create jobs,” affirms Goulet.
Essential for Goulet’s entrepreneurial research and development to succeed are partnerships with other textile businesses. Saprex has engaged yarn producers and finishing companies in McAdenville, Kings Mountain and Lincolnton, as well as chemical companies in Charlotte.
The partnership Saprex enjoys with Beverly Knits, Inc. is an excellent example of how innovative product development can work with textile manufacturing for mutual benefit and job growth.
Beverly Knits, Inc. was started in 1980 as a contract circular knitter. Built upon a research and development background, the company develops new and unique fabrics for diverse markets including intimate apparel, high tech underwear and outerwear, shoes, furniture, medical, industrial, automotive and mattress and bedding. Owned by Ron and Janet Sytz, Beverly Knits has grown to 190 employees and from eight to over 200 knitting machines.
Customers include Patagonia, NorthFace, the U.S. military, Nissan and Honda. “It’s quite possible that you might have some of our fabric in your car or in a composite used in the compressor for your air conditioner,” says Ron Sytz, president of the company.
Beverly Knits operates out of four buildings in Gastonia totaling 290,000 square feet. Beverly Knits was the first production facility to knit Lycra spandex into fabrics. It has survived the movement of the textile industry to other countries and the downturn in the economy by its continued diversification. The company has more than doubled in size and employees in the last 10 years.
Beverly Knits and Saprex work together to develop products and businesses that will create more jobs. “Bob supplies the product development and the customer; Beverly Knits makes the fabric needed,” explains Sytz.
When large chemical companies such as DuPont and Monsanto moved their textile operations offshore, they took their research and development programs along, according to Sytz. “In order to develop products for different industries and markets, you need a research company like Saprex that will speed up the innovation cycle,” explains Sytz. “Many times manufacturers will go to the universities in an area looking for solutions. Partnerships such as Beverly Knits and Saprex are the future of textiles.”
“What Beverly Knits brings to Saprex is first class manufacturing. I can focus on the product development because I have a knitting partner in Beverly Knits that can handle all our knitting needs,” says Goulet. “What I bring to Beverly Knits is a customer and integrated development. It’s provides a great synergy.”
Speed to Market
Saprex is able to work quickly, an important factor in today’s world. Usually, a product is being researched and developed in response to the identification of a risk. These may or may not be accompanied by demands for greater regulations.
“We live in a highly litigious society,” says Goulet. “If there is a problem, you must fix it—now. There is a socially driven conversation to solve risks. Tolerance for a long development process doesn’t exist.”
Walking around his laboratory, Goulet points to shelves and drawers.
“We are focused on rapid development. We stock a wide range of materials and equipment parts. We can build and test a new product in a matter of hours. From chemically treating, to sewing a prototype, to testing it—we have it all here. If we need a need a new piece of test equipment, we could probably have something up and running tomorrow.”
When asked about challenges, Goulet was quick to respond. “Surviving the fluctuation of an early start-up—the on-and-off-again revenue; choosing the right projects with the right people. When you are young, every decision is a big decision because one really bad decision can close the doors.”
Goulet has been in new product development since graduating from the University of Connecticut with a degree in chemical engineering 17 years ago. He came south to earn his master’s degree in chemistry from Clemson University. While there he worked with Milliken doing research. After graduation, he stayed with the company for 10 more years, working in product development, research and marketing and earned his MBA from Duke.
He went on to work in companies in Lexington, Ky., and Salt Lake City, Utah, before returning to the South in 2009 to start Saprex and establish partnership with Beverly Knits.
“I moved to Charlotte because of what’s left of the U. S. textile industry is here,” says Goulet. Working out of an incubator office at the Ben Craig Center, Goulet became familiar with the infrastructure of the city and was introduced to UNC at Charlotte. “There’s a lot of support here once you know that it’s here.”
A single father, Goulet spends his time between running the company and raising his son. He is passionate about the outdoors and enjoys backpacking, fishing, hiking and climbing. Always working, he is also passionate about the equipment and gear related to outdoor activity—how to make it more functional.
“I have a drive to build things better; to find the next generation of things,” says Goulet.
Goulet aims to help Charlotte be a global leader in materials. “We need to create a vision and tell our story. We have all the resources for textiles here: a great history in textiles, a good work force, facilities and a number of innovative companies.”
Goulet believes that as business, government and community leaders in the Charlotte region take an appraising look at all of the advanced textiles that are part of our everyday lives and realize that many of the innovations over the next hundred years will involve fibers and fabrics, they will start to wonder, “Is developing a city in the heart of textile country into a world leader in advanced materials that big of a stretch?”
Still, that may not be enough for Goulet. His personal goal is to have an impact as powerful as reaching for the stars.
“I want to be on the first human flight to Mars. No,” he corrects himself. “I want my advanced material to be on that flight; material that breaks the paradigm of what we thought possible.”