Business

Ebola crisis puts Fort Worth startup in expansion mode

Talk about timing.

A fledgling Fort Worth company is ramping up to handle a surge of orders for its new device after a local firm used the electrostatically charged disinfectant sprayer to rid a Dallas apartment house of possibly lingering Ebola germs.

The silvery tank and hand-held sprayer, resembling a 1950s Sci-Fi movie ray gun, had come on the market just weeks before the first Ebola case was diagnosed in Dallas and it was pictured on the front pages of newspapers including The New York Times.

E-Mist Innovations had expected to move maybe 1,000 units in 2014. The product is marketed as Touch Point Healthy Infection Control System.

But production with its Arlington contract manufacturer, QFC Plastics, will be ramping up to 1,000 a month by January, and 10,000 a month during the second quarter of 2015, said Chief Executive George Robertson.

What makes the device different is that the mist is induction-charged — meaning it passes through a high voltage field. As a result, molecules of the disinfectant become more “positively charged,” making its minute droplets adhere to surfaces. It’s like a balloon, rubbed against a sweater, that will stick to your clothing, said Mike Sides, the inventor.

Hospitals and nursing home chains already were beginning to buy the mister this fall when the Ebola cases in Dallas escalated the need for such disinfecting devices.

Twenty have been shipped to the Philippines and the U.S. government has made inquiries about tens of thousands that could be shipped to West Africa, Robertson said.

The mister is the brainchild of Sides, a 62-year-old machinist-welder from the small Central Texas town of Goldthwaite. There he has tinkered for years on nozzles carried by crop-dusting planes. Induction charging the liquid pesticide keeps it on target, whether it’s used on a row of potatoes or orchards of pecan trees, he said.

From there, Sides worked on prototypes of a portable sprayer that could be used on greenhouse tomatoes. Word spread in Goldthwaite and when H1N1 flu prompted concerns at the local school district, he got a call from the principal “to bring over that tomato sprayer.” Sides sprayed down the schools.

When he mentioned it to his family, his daughter Brandi Whiteley, who has nursing training, turned to him and said: “Dad, do you realize what you’ve got here?”

Whitely immediately grasped the practical use of an effective disinfecting device for hospitals and care centers. The family decided to form a company to make and sell the misters.

Getting seed money was another matter.

Lenders turned them down, but an El Paso banker referred the family to the Small Business Administration, which in turn suggested that the family try Tech Fort Worth. After making an impression on the nonprofit entrepreneurial incubator, they made a Shark Tank-like pitch to a group of investors called the Cowtown Angels.

Robertson, 58, who had worked in the hospice equipment field, wasn’t impressed, however, citing weaknesses in the business plan, he recalled Wednesday. But he was soon won over after several other investors talked up the business and the group asked him to become its CEO earlier this year.

E-Mist began with a $150,000 investment, then topped it off with another $500,000, Sides and Robertson said. The Sides family still controls a sizable portion of the company, Mike Sides said.

The devices are “licensed” to users at $500 a month, an arrangement which allows E-Mist to replace units with more sophisticated ones as they evolve, Robertson said. If a contract is finalized with the government, units likely would be sold outright, he added.

“It’s amazing,” Sides said of the device’s sudden fame. “What are the chances of a new company with a product just emerging to be working in that area when the Ebola thing happens in almost the same city? I don’t know if that’s fate, chance or God’s will. We’re definitely at the right place at the right time with the right contacts.”

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