Rust Buster with Big Potential
A patent for an anti-rust coating issued in March to Auburn’s Jon Brasher promises to become a breakthrough technology for many industries, especially big utilities. The biggest risk to success: resistance in direct proportion to client company size.
Few people who take a beach vacation check the underside of their beach house. But that’s what Jon Brasher did while vacationing with friends on Alabama’s Gulf Coast. The hurricane straps and joist hangers, he discovered, were rusted clear through.
It was 2006, a year after Hurricane Katrina. A friend sharing the beach house was Glenn Sollie, an Auburn engineer who had been conducting inspections along the Gulf as part of the reconstruction effort after Katrina.
Looking underneath the house, Sollie turned to Brasher and said, “You know, they’re still using this same stuff to rebuild after Katrina, and it’s already rusting.”
As field and media research coordinator for Auburn University’s department of crops, soils and environmental sciences, Brasher knew about a material used to coat fuel lines for machinery and how it might be used for other purposes.
Eureka moment came that night as he sat with his wife, Leslie, on the porch listening to the ocean.
“It suddenly became clear. Coat the straps, hangers and ties with that material. You could run nails and screws through it and it would last for decades. I began working on it as soon as I got home.”
Brasher came up with Storm Greeter, the name he gave his heat-cured material that creates a noncorrosive coating.
The base formulation, which is rubberized PVC, was patented in 1926 by B.F. Goodrich and was used for padding the tracks on military tanks and wire insulation. The seal inside Mason jar lids is one variation of the formula. So is the ink used for customized T-shirts.
“Our formulation, which is based off the original, contains proprietary, patented modifications that enable it to stand up to the elements for decades,” says Brasher, who notes that rust and corrosion cost U.S. businesses and government about $540 billion annually and worldwide close to 3.1 percent of every nation’s GNP.
“We can color the coating without changing the performance capabilities. In fact, if there is a Pantone code for the color a customer wants, we can do that. Where paint begins to crack and crumble over time and fall into the soil or ocean floor, Storm Greeter maintains its integrity.”
As a liquid, Storm Greeter will wash off with soap and water on most surfaces, including skin, Brasher says. As a cured solid, it is inert, nonporous and doesn’t leach into the environment. It’s also food safe.
Brasher began developing the Storm Greeter coating in 2006 and in March of this year was awarded the first patent on its coating method. Patents are pending on the formulations and the Storm Greeter name is trademarked.
In 2010, Brasher incorporated his company Ovante LLC, a Portuguese word meaning triumphant or victorious, and serves as president and CTO.
The company operates out of two offices. Research and development takes place in Opelika, with some testing in the bay at Orange Beach. Business and legal functions are handled in Tallahassee, where Ovante’s intellectual property attorney works.
Ovante now sells its products to Atlanta-based Southern Co., a gas and electric utility holding company, and other utility industry leaders. Southern Co. asked Brasher to conduct a test on how the coating would seal to a steel power pole. The test ran for 30 days and Storm Greeter “sailed through like a champ,” he recalls.
Southern Co. then requested adhesion and UV testing, and after receiving good results, asked for testing to be done at the Electric Power Research Institute in Charlotte. EPRI is the underwriters’ laboratory for the electric utilities industry.
Storm Greeter passed testing for UV, chemical, and impact and abrasion resistance. Brasher says testing also showed that the Storm Greeter coating will add 35 or more years to the life of the steel.
ABOVE Jon Brasher has developed ways to curtail rust damage to metal parts and weather damage to wooden poles, now marketed through his compay, Ovante LLC.
In 2015, Southern Co. approved Ovante’s Storm Greeter Peel & Stick (SGPS), a tape-like product that whenever applied, cuts labor costs up to 90 percent, while the annual cost of the coating is reduced up to 50 percent.
“Our SGPS has been approved for use and we believe we will begin to see it used both in the factory on new poles and as a repair in the field. In the oil and gas industry, we have opportunities to cut costs and reduce leaks, spills and lost revenue both as a corrosion inhibitor and as an insulator against galvanic corrosion and vibration.”
Other Ovante products include DuraTop, a seamless cap that fits over the top of wooden, concrete and steel poles. Wooden poles, piers and fence posts are particularly vulnerable. When water and debris collects in the grain at the top, fungal decay sets in causing the wood to crack and rot.
Another Storm Greeter product is Hot-Dip, a process in which construction connectors, such as joist hangers and hurricane straps, are hot dipped with the Storm Greeter coating. In 2016, Brasher began field applications of the Hot-Dip process. By taking a heat source to the field, the coating can be applied on site, which reduces labor and annual coating costs.
Last year, Ovante began selling its DuraTop pole caps to Georgia and Alabama Power, along with PowerSouth electric co-op. Sales in the first three months of 2017 were more than twice what they were in 2016.
Also in 2016, Brasher began coating guy wire anchor rods with Storm Greeter for MacLean Power Systems, which manufactures parts for utilities and construction in a variety of industries worldwide and operates in Alabama. The anchor rods are being installed along the coast and in alkaline soils west of the Mississippi.
Growing up in Leeds, in 1979 Brasher moved to Auburn where he met his future wife Leslie, an artist. The couple married in 1986 and adopted their son, David, from Ukraine when he was 5, who Brasher says “went straight into kindergarten speaking Russian.” David is nearly 21 now.
Brasher earned two degrees from Auburn University — an undergraduate degree in hospital administration and accounting in 1985 and an MBA in 1987. He has worked as a cost accountant and a controller for a Belgian-owned plastics company and in construction as a contractor and residential designer.
Despite the growth of Ovante, Brasher has no plans to quit his Auburn University “day job.”
“The folks I work with, both the farmers and the scientists here at Auburn, are wonderful, down-to-earth people. It would be hard to not do this every day. If my job here begins to hurt Ovante, or vice-versa, then I will have to make that decision.”
Getting any company up and running is never easy. “The biggest challenge is that we’re a disruptive technology in an industry where people have accepted existing and inadequate solutions as the price of doing business,” Brasher says.
“Our market is full of huge, publicly regulated companies, and that helps make the sales cycle dreadfully long. What looks like beneficial change from the outside often feels like a huge risk on the inside, where corrosion is just one of many problems. So many times, you don’t have to win over a stakeholder or two at a big or even mid-sized company, but whole departments or divisions.”
On the plus side, there’s a global need for new solutions like Storm Greeter, he says.
“My expectation is that once acceptance begins it will snowball. Ovante’s Storm Greeter coatings are ideally suited for the utility and energy, transportation, defense, agriculture and marine industries.”
By next year, Brasher predicts Ovante’s share of the pole and pier cap market will more than double, and then grow by a similar rate for the next few years. “The volume of anchor rods has already grown by 10 times what we did last year, and we expect to begin coating a wider range of components in the near future.”
Jessica Armstrong and Cary Norton are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Armstrong is based in Stuart, Florida and Norton in Birmingham.