Upstarts Grown Up
Check up on five promising, fledgling companies we introduced to you in the last decade.
Zkano founder Gina Locklear recently launched Little River Sock Mill, a brand of high-end socks for the boutique market. Little River socks are already in 70 stores in the United States and Canada.
Typically, “Where Are They Now?” stories spotlight popular child stars — “The Brady Bunch” brood, the kid from “Doogie Howser, M.D.” or the cast of any 1980s John Hughes movie.
Here instead is a where-are-they-now look at five Alabama companies we featured over the past several years, checking in to see where they are today. Each has moved forward in various ways — from increasing international sales and developing new product lines to opening an office in a hip Brooklyn neighborhood.
When first reporting in 2012 on Zkano, a producer of organic socks in Fort Payne, the company already had claimed a spot in this niche market. Gina Locklear started the company in 2009 to design and manufacture socks using certified organic cotton and sustainable practices at Emi-G Knitting, her parent’s sock company and among the few mills still operating in Fort Payne, once known as the Sock Capital of the World.
This spring, Locklear launched Little River Socks Mill, a brand of high-end socks for the boutique market. Little River socks already are in 70 stores in the United States and Canada, plus a large retailer in Japan. Her Zkano division also is thriving with its sales tripling in 2013.
Today, all phases of production are done in-house, from knitting to the finishing process. Though Locklear hopes to hire new employees and increase sales, she says the company has “no plans to ever leave Fort Payne.”
Locklear recently created lines for two internationally renowned Alabama fashion designers, Natalie Chanin and Billy Reid, both based in the Shoals. Women’s socks are available on Chanin’s Alabama Chanin website. A limited-edition collection of men’s socks is offered in Billy Reid retail stores and online.
Earlier this year at New York’s Fall Fashion Week, Locklear was excited to see her socks on the runway. She recently started attending trade shows where she’s found a growing interest in USA-made products. Besides clothing stores and small boutiques, Locklear’s socks also are sold in natural food stores including Whole Foods, at 360 stores the world’s largest natural foods retailer.
To Your Health Sprouted Flour Co., in rural Fitzpatrick, tripled production since 2010 and now sells worldwide — in Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Australia and Dubai.
To Your Health Sprouted Flour
Another Alabama company also selling to Whole Foods is To Your Health Sprouted Flour Co. in rural Fitzpatrick, which produces 100 percent whole grain sprouted flours, along with sprouted, dried whole grains for those who want to do their own milling.
Founder and President Peggy Sutton started the company in 2005 in her kitchen and in 2009 partnered with Whole Foods, which uses her sprouted grains in the breads baked and sold in its stores. Her husband, Jeff, built a commercial kitchen in his new barn in 2006 and today is CEO.
Since we originally wrote about the company in 2010, production capacity has tripled and products are now sold worldwide, in Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Australia and Dubai. In 2013, a second building opened where certified gluten-free products are produced.
“We’re the biggest producer of sprouted organic bread flour,” says Sutton, “at least in the United States.”
Along with Whole Foods, the company sells to bakeries and other major natural foods companies including Hain Celestial Group, Arrowhead Mills and Amy’s Kitchen. Her products are also sold in retail stores nationwide and on the Internet, which comprises 25 to 30 percent of overall sales.
In 2010, Sutton was sprouting 12 grains, legumes and seeds for her flour and grain products, and today sprouts 22 different varieties. Among the new choices are grits, popcorn, green peas, navy beans and sunflower seeds. Grains and legumes are purchased mainly from suppliers in the United States and some in Canada. Only quinoa is imported because it’s not grown in North America.
Sutton is proud to be involved in such a time-honored tradition, noting that sprouting grains dates back to 3000 B.C. She’s also proud of the economic impact her company is making by employing 22 full-time workers in Bullock County, one of Alabama’s poorest counties.
Sprayroq Inc. — developer and manufacturer of structural and chemical-resistant polyurethanes for rehabilitating and protecting underground infrastructure — has worked since 2009 to penetrate the China market. When we first wrote about the Pelham-based company in 2011, President Jerry Gordon discussed the years of research, relationship building and patience it took to finally staff a China office.
The hard work and patience paid off, and today Sprayroq is well positioned to serve Southeast Asia — so much so that Gordon says the company is experiencing an outstanding year in sales in China this year selling Sprayroq’s licensed product line.
Gordon says until recently the company has focused “hard and heavy” on the water and wastewater markets, providing products used to protect and rehabilitate structures associated with potable water and sanitary sewer systems. Sprayroq is now investigating branching into additional markets, such as the power generation industry, hydro-fracking or hydraulic fracturing, and coatings to help boats resist saltwater corrosion.
A recent major initiative is Sprayroq’s national pursuit of product approval by the Department of Transportation. Once the process is approved, Gordon says it will provide state DOT agencies with a viable structural solution for storm water system rehabilitation without digging and replacing old pipes.
Sprayroq also has added staff, including in China. In addition, the company has expanded beyond its licensing model to sell unlicensed products to the general public, which Gordon says has never been done in the company’s 24 years of existence.
Vaxin was an up-and-coming biotech company in our first report back in 2001. The company was founded as a spin out of the University of Alabama at Birmingham to develop next generation vaccines to address public health and bio-defense needs. Today, Vaxin is designing vaccines to protect people against influenza and anthrax infection, using its patented technologies for intranasal delivery.
“We’ve had lots of ups and downs since 2001,” says President and CEO Bill Enright, “up to 30 employees and down to five and up to 16 at the end of the summer. The science is going well and the government is pleased with our contracts, and like most biotechnology companies we’re always looking for money.”
Enright expects the anthrax vaccine that is being developed to be available by 2019 with sufficient funding. Unlike the anthrax vaccine currently on the market that requires three shots over a three-month period, this vaccine is a single dose administered nasally. The initial award for the anthrax vaccine was for $14.7 million with an option for an additional $7 million. Through several modifications of the contract, the value is now $19 million.
An influenza vaccine — also administered nasally — for seasonal and potentially pandemic use has gone through clinical studies with people. With adequate funding, Enright expects the flu vaccine also to be available in 2019. Vaxin’s technology allows for a more rapid and cost-effective manufacturing cycle compared to the traditional egg-based influenza vaccine manufacturing process.
Vaxin relocated from Birmingham to Gaithersburg, Maryland, in 2011 and in March 2012 closed its Innovation Depot lab in Birmingham, where it had been located since 2007. Proximity to Washington, D.C. was a primary reason for the move. Even though Vaxin has pulled out of Alabama, UAB Research Foundation continues to have an equity stake in the company, along with several Birmingham-area venture capital funds and the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama.
Back in 1997, a fledgling company called DealNews started with two friends who would search for bargains on well-designed technology gadgets, computers and electronics, and then share the information on their website. By 2000, DealNews had grown to about eight employees working in a small space in Huntsville’s BizTech.
Today, DealNews operates in more than 12,000 square feet of office space in Huntsville, plus offices in New York City and Dublin, Ireland. Co-founder and CEO Dan de Grandpre says in 2000 the company had about one million visits to its website, and in 2014 its website, apps and email newsletters will be opened 200 million times.
De Grandpre says the number of employees is 13 times greater and revenue is 27 times higher than in 2000. “We’re growing faster than Google or Amazon, albeit on a much smaller scale.”
DealNews had about 24 clients in 2000 and today de Grandpre says the company has thousands of clients, including Walmart and Apple. “Virtually all of our revenue comes from out of state, which means that we’re bringing in tens of millions of dollars from California, Texas, New York and Florida into Alabama.”
The company recently opened an office in Brooklyn’s trendy DUMBO neighborhood that has become a hotbed for startups. Financial incentives were a primary reason for the expansion to both Brooklyn and Dublin.
“Our New York team loves visiting Huntsville. Because rent is so much cheaper, we have room for things like our arcade — about a thousand square feet containing dozens of ’80s vintage arcade games and pinball machines. We’ve also taken our New York team to Smith Lake for teambuilding. And it’s nice to educate someone from up North on what proper barbecue tastes like.”
Jessica Armstrong is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Auburn.