Listen to FuzeHub’s podcast with Pvilion to learn more about the rise of this dynamic company. In addition to telling Pvilion’s story, Touhey shares advice for startups and addresses challenges that manufacturers face. He also describes Pvilion’s successes and explains how his company has benefitted by working with NYS-funded assets.
Steve Melito: Hey, welcome to New York State Manufacturing Now the podcast that’s powered by FuzeHub. I’m your host, Steve Melito, and today we are going to speak with Colin Touhey from Pvilion. Colin, how are you?
Colin Touhey: I’m good. This is great. We’re doing a virtual meeting today, so we’re really excited to get going and talk about what we’ve been up to and how FuzeHub has helped us.
Steve Melito: Well, fantastic. So for starters, what is the Pvilion story? How did you get started and how long have you been around?
Colin Touhey: That’s a great question. So our background is in fabric structure and engineering. So we have been developing tents, canopies, awnings, stadium roofs, technology related to lightweight fabric structures. My partners started a company over 35 years ago developing lightweight structures in the consulting space, and that was about developing fabriac structure technology. Now, if you fast forward about 20 years ago, we started to integrate solar cells into those structures. In fact, the first project that was ever built, the first solar tent in the world, a solar powered tent, was designed for a museum exhibit at the Smithsonian in Washington DC and it was an exhibit on the future of energy. And we developed a solar technology that very quickly the Army saw at a museum exhibit and they said, ” Hey, we want some of these.” So we spent about 10 years developing the technology with the military, and about nine years ago now, we started Pvilion a totally separate offshoot from the previous entities. And the express purpose of Pvilion was to bring lightweight fabric based solar products to the commercial markets. And for us, that meant mostly at the time architecture, so canopy, stadium roofs, awnings, carports, traditional industries where aesthetics are important and we could integrate technology into the systems. Over the years since we entered the architectural market, we’ve expanded our product offerings and our markets well beyond architecture to consumer products like bags and backpacks that we’ve built with Tommy Hilfiger, to event tents for music festivals and parties that are self- powered with our solar technology, to military tents that self- power, have air conditioning, lighting and pop up robotically. So we’ve really expanded our product offerings, but the fundamental business is the technology integration of solar cells and fabrics.
Steve Melito: Wow. So a lot of different applications. The military application, that’s a really interesting one. What was that process like of I guess you would’ve worked with the Department of Defense? How did you get started?
Colin Touhey: Well, backing up in our previous entity, our previous lives, we had done and actually helped develop some of the new age tent technology without solar panels for the army. So the army has looked favorably upon our designs and our technologies over the years and anytime we meet with them, they say, ” What kind of other crazy thing do you have up your sleeve?” And we see if we can convince them to help us develop it. But more recently we’ve worked through an interesting program with the Air Force, and that is called a Dual- Use Technology program. And I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the Department of Defense’s direction in dual- use technologies. Dual- use means that it can be used for both the commercial market and the defense market. And the advantage of that is rather than the military doing R& D and funding very expensive research and development in labs with really far out startup companies, they can go to the commercial marketplace and say, ” Hey, you have something that commercial customers want, why don’t we use that in a fighter jet or why don’t we use that for a soldier to carry around?” And I think the idea is that modifying a commercial technology for defense use is a much easier lift than starting and inventing a technology from scratch. And with the growth of additive manufacturing and rapid prototyping and small scale manufacturing, especially in places like New York, commercial companies are starting every day in universities and incubators. They come up with a really good idea, they start selling $ 100,000 of it on Kickstarter, and guess what? They could be selling to the military and so the military is now coming to these small startup companies and saying, ” You have a great idea. You have a product, you have a market, now we’ll give you a little bit of extra money to modify your commercial technology like our architectural canopies for military use.”That’s been a real shift in the Department of Defense, and it’s thanks to folks in the Air Force. There’s an organization called AFWERX, A- F- W- E- R- X. We went through the AFWERX program who then invited us to apply for a development contract with what is the Rapid Sustainment Office of the Air Force, and it’s called the RSO. And they’ve been really great in supporting our efforts in getting products that are readily available in the hands of the airmen. And that’s the key to the dual- use technology program.
Steve Melito: Excellent. So what do these tents look like? I’m thinking of maybe a college reunion or the TV show M* A* S* H or when I go camping. What do the tents look like? Do they come in different shape, sizes, colors, attributes?
Colin Touhey: Yeah. Well, fundamentally, our technology is the integration of the solar cells and the fabrics and turning it into a product. So the tent can look like any tent you have out there. Many of our customers are actually non- solar companies, so a company that makes a fabric product. Say you make a patio umbrella and you sell a million of them a year, you may go, ” Hey, if we had solar cells built into the fabric and we could have our customers buy a product that could charge their cell phone, we think we sure could sell a heck of a lot of those things.” So what they do is they come to us and they say, ” You be the technology expert and you help us develop a product, develop a supply chain, develop a manufacturing process that would allow us to solarize our non- solar products.” So the short answer is the product can look however they want. Generally speaking, there are solar cells integrated. Those solar cells are typical of what you would see on a rooftop installation, so you’re looking at little black coupons, little black areas or dark blue areas. And with that, we apply and laminate those solar cells into whatever product is necessary for the market.
Steve Melito: So if I wanted to get one of these tents as a consumer, are they available to the consumer market?
Colin Touhey: Currently, no. We are working with consumer partners. So our business model is to be the technology inside the finished product, and we’re working with a couple consumer products companies who are launching products with our technology inside. So to be continued on that.
Steve Melito: Okay, good, good, fair. You had mentioned manufacturing processes. Can you talk at all about your supply chain and who you work with and the things that you look at and how you vet potential partners?
Colin Touhey: Yeah, absolutely. Well, firstly, from our business perspective, we like to stay as material agnostic as possible. So what that means is that our technology is about putting it all together into a working finished product. And so what that means is the supply chain and the materials that you might use for a military application are going to be slightly different than the materials you’re going to use in a bag for a consumer, which are slightly different than the materials that for an architectural application, you need to be warrantied and last 25 years outside with the sleet and snow and sand, et cetera. So our supply chain is varied. Our supply chain is global, but what our products do is we integrate it and we turn it into products mostly here in New York State. So that is our goal, is to take materials from elsewhere and turn it into processes and manufactured products that are here as local as possible and as far as our manufacturing process innovation, this is actually really where FuzeHub has come in in the last year. And we have taken our manufacturing process through from kind of bespoke handmade, hand laid up composite type processes to more automated processes thanks to FuzeHub grants, which actually have been supporting the RPI Center for Advanced Technology, the RPI CAT. The CAT has been working on robotizing our more bespoke manufacturing process and that’s how you look at the public- private government partnership, it’s this trifecta that we have, which is incredible. We have the university helping a commercial company turn their process into a more scalable process. So as we get orders in the tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions, we can’t keep up as a small business with a handful of employees unless we scale our manufacturing processes and that’s what FuzeHub and RPI CAT and the great folks there have been able to help us with.
Steve Melito: So I’m going to guess that the grant was a manufacturing innovation fund grant, which would be the FuzeHub Jeff Lawrence Fund. And RPI, just for folks that are listening that don’t know, that’s Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and for many years, the group over there that works with startups and all sorts of companies was known as CATS, and they have a new name. It’s the Manufacturing Innovation Center, MIC.
Colin Touhey: I apologize. I forgot that they’re changing their name, so that’s exciting.
Steve Melito: Not a problem. Just want to give them a shout- out. What have they been like to work with?
Colin Touhey: Well, I mean, it’s been a pleasure. What’s interesting with working with them is you have the professional side of people who focus on manufacturing all day, every day, this is what they do. And then you have the innovation, which they’re innovative in and of themselves, but then you have the academic environment, which is also connected. So we’ve had students and professors working with the commercial product side as well, so you have the real high professionalism with the real high creativity. We’ve had some undergraduate students working with us, we’ve had some grad students working with us. So for us as a small business, we’ve expanded our team to a team of experts overnight with this grant and that’s what’s been really interesting is we see it as an extension of our development team. And that doesn’t mean that we’re necessarily the bosses or we’re in charge, but we’re all teammates here and so working with them, we basically have weekly calls. We had a call two hours ago, and they update us on their progress based on taking our lamination technology and robotizing it. I don’t know what percentage has been student work and what has been professor work, but it’s been a mix and we even have… Right now, we have a full- time grad student working on this project who is not taking any courses, but this is a full- time effort for a really incredible mechanical engineering student. We have another master’s student who is writing his thesis and actually just successfully defended his thesis on this project specifically. So it’s not just kind of like a rinky- dink semester long project where no one gets anything done at the end. It’s really focused, hyper excited group of not just students, but professors as well.
Steve Melito: It’s great that you’re getting real results and results that are helping you to grow. So like any company, there are challenges along the way. Can you tell us about some of the challenges that you’ve overcome? Because sometimes this will encourage people that are listening to realize whatever they’re dealing with, they’re not alone in this and it’s something that they can win over.
Colin Touhey: Yeah, I mean, there’s just such a large number of challenges. I think because your group is related to manufacturing, I can focus a little bit on what our manufacturing challenges have been. And I would say for us, we have this balance between customers wanting customized solutions and our desire to scale up the manufacturing of one of the same thing over and over and over and over again in a factory. So we’re up against the desire for super custom work with the simplicity of making the same thing over and over again. And where folks like the RPI CATS team has come in, or sorry, the RPI MIC, they’ve kind of helped us understand what our product is. I also want to emphasize… I want to shout out to another group, which is EMCOR. I’m not sure if you’ve worked directly with them, but they have helped us along our manufacturing challenges and bumps in the road. The real question for us that we’ve had to answer in I’d say the last 12 months is what is our product? Our product is fundamentally pieces of fabric that have solar cells integrated into them and wires integrated into them that then we turn into a semi- finished or a finished product. So our product isn’t necessarily just the same of one thing finished over and over again, our product is a material, think of it as like a building material like brick or wood or steel or metal, and that material is solar fabric. That’s the product, and then what we do with that is a customized process. That might seem obvious, but it’s really important to bifurcate what is repeatable mass produced product and what is customized solution? And we were under the impression that, oh, we have no real repeatable product but the answer is actually we do. We just turn that product as a value added service into something else for particular customers and verticals. That was a real challenge for us to understand, and that was a real challenge that the RPI folks and the EMCOR folks and the FuzeHub folks have all helped us intellectually understand. When you have that process and you have that scalable product, what that also means from a manufacturing standpoint is you have IP, you have process IP, and you also have a licensable technology and that was a key ingredient too. You know, we’re not artisans. We have a technology that if someone in Australia says, ” We are a massive company and we want to make what you do.” We say, “Great. Actually, RPI has developed a machinery and the robotics and the processes to set up an assembly line in Australia and we could ship it to Australia and sell that machine for a million dollars and get 5% of sales for the next 20 years and that is a product. Even though we wouldn’t be the ones making the end product, whether it be a carport or an umbrella or a pool cover or what have you. And so that’s been a challenge for us is to understand what our product is. That must sound so trivial, but it’s the most important thing if you don’t understand what your product is and I think we’ve gotten a better understanding of that over the last 12 months.
Steve Melito: Good. And so these resources have really helped you, and you were a really good user of the resources that are available. How did you learn that this type of help was out there in the first place? Did you come to an event or did you get an email, or how did you get to be a good user of the ecosystem?
Colin Touhey: I’m pretty sure that we met at one of… Paige and I met at the One Innovation Forum at a… Was it the Brooklyn Army terminal in Brooklyn?
Steve Melito: Yes, a couple years ago. Right. Yep,
Colin Touhey: Yep. And that’s when we met and I said, ” Oh my God, there are so many resources here.” It was basically a matchmaking kind of speed dating thing where you went around from table to table to table, and you learned about how you can get funding for new employees, how we could have resources to understand exporting. That’s how we met EMCOR, who ultimately we ended up working with. That’s how I met Brian and Dan at RPI at that forum. I mean, that was one and I said, ” Okay, we got to do this again.” And then there was another one I believe in Saratoga and-
Steve Melito: Yes.
Colin Touhey: Yes. Yes, and I spoke there, which was a great opportunity. So yeah, going to these in- person events was great and then… I mean, even the emails, we’re in the ecosystem, and the fact that we’re getting these emails, we’re in the middle of this COVID crisis and to see the emails of how New York State can help manufacturing companies, I mean, I’m reading those every day because you are distilling and FuzeHub is distilling the information down to a simple form that we can understand. Another program, which sorry if it’s a tangent. Another program that we’re working on is a cybersecurity grant that we got through FuzeHub as well and that’s also MTEC, which is a partnership. Maybe you could speak a little more about how everyone’s related, I don’t totally understand.
Steve Melito: Sure.
Colin Touhey: But that was through an email, and that was through FuzeHub saying, ” You have defense work and as part of your defense work, you need to make sure that your company is secure from a cybersecurity perspective. I bet you’re not because you’re a small commercial company and we have money to help you do it, and we have experts to help you do it.” And it was a great process, and it’s amazing. When we worked with our defense clients a month ago, they asked, ” Where are you on cybersecurity?” If we haven’t gone through this grant process, I would say, ” What are you talking about?” Instead, I sent them a full report and a certified letter saying, “These are the steps that we’re taking to be cyber secure. This is what we’re doing, and here are the professionals that we’re working with.” And we could not have done that without FuzeHub. I mean, we couldn’t have done that without that grant. We wouldn’t even have known what we didn’t know without getting the email newsletter from FuzeHub and saying, ” Whoa, what’s this?” And then you following up saying, ” Hey, I think this would be a good resource for your company.”
Steve Melito: That’s great and it’s great that you’ve been proactive with cyber. Many manufacturers think it just doesn’t apply to me. What I do just isn’t important enough. And what those manufacturers fail to understand is sometimes they’re the target, and sometimes they’re just an entry point into a larger supply chain that goes all the way up to DOD. And so increasingly, the tier one and tier two OEMs are pushing down on the smaller guys, and it’s going to be a reality for everybody that they need to be cybersecurity compliant. To your credit, you’ve gotten ahead of this, and it’s interesting that you shared that you’re already having those conversations where people are asking you, ” What have you done about it? Are you ready?” This is just a cost of doing business in today’s world.
Colin Touhey: For us, I think of it as an insurance policy. You know when you get sick, you go, ” Oh, thank God I have health insurance.” So when you do. And what happens if our clients ask, our DOD customers ask, ” What are you doing to be cyber secure?” We have that list. We say, ” We’re doing this, that, and the other thing.” And I can tell you that it was FuzeHub that pushed me to be aware of this. It wasn’t us thinking proactively. So while we are mathematically… As far as a schedule goes, we’re being proactive about it. We weren’t proactive and we were kind of waiting and a friend Everton kept saying, ” You got to do this, you got to do this, you got to do this.” And he was right and the process of doing it was really easy. It was a really professional process. We went through the audit, the team from MTEC came in and did their audit and interviewed us, and it was really helpful.
Steve Melito: Good. I’m really happy to hear that. And the requirements for cybersecurity are only going to increase, so it’s good that you’re in here and working on that angle. So that’s certainly a challenge. Do you do a lot of work with startups? You ever talk to startups?
Colin Touhey: Well, let’s see. We’re usually the startup. I feel like a beginner every day when I wake up. We get calls all the time about people starting businesses, and we’d love to help out wherever we can. We’ve been through the ups and downs of starting a business and have good advice for folks. And we also, thanks to all the resources in New York State and the time that we’ve put in to understand those resources, I think that we have a leg up on other folks just by understanding what ESD does, understanding what NYSERDA, understanding what FuzeHub does. This is a lot to wrap your head around and as you said, you are helping companies navigate these resources. But I wouldn’t say it’s a full- time job to figure it out, but it does take an express amount of effort, but the juice is worth the squeeze, I’ll put it that way.
Steve Melito: Good. That’s good to hear. You know, there’s a lot of acronyms, and when you’re trying to start up a company or run a manufacturing company, it’s challenging enough to do the things that you need to do on a daily basis. So part of the value that FuzeHub brings, and I’m happy to hear you echo in this, is to help you navigate that system and to make connections that really add value to what you’re up to. So you’re up to a lot. Where do you think you’re going to be in five years?
Colin Touhey: Oh man. Five years. Our goal is to be the solar fabric technology company inside any solar powered product. So what we want to be is the Gore- Tex inside a technology product or the Intel inside. So I think what we want to be is, if it’s not a household name, we are the go- to developer and manufacturer of solar powered fabric that is inside products. Some of those products will continue to make, and some of those products we will work with other partners to manufacture. But where we really want to be, we already are the industry leader in this technology and the world’s leader in solar fabric technology, but we want to be the known entity where someone goes, ” Oh yeah, Pvilion, I know them. Their technology was inside my umbrella that I purchased that powers my cell phone. Oh, their label is on my tent that I brought camping with me. Oh, this technology, I saw that at Coachella when I was in a music festival that the technology used to power. The concert was Pvilion’s technology.” So that’s really where we want to be.
Steve Melito: That’s fantastic and it’s all happening right here in New York State. Listen, I’ll give you the sort of the last word on this before I wrap it up. Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about Pvilion that you’d like people to know?
Colin Touhey: Let’s see. I think one of the shifts that we’ve made, not away from the architectural space, but in addition to the architectural space, is looking at a lot of off- grid applications and these solar applications which are self- sufficient. So when you go camping, when you go hunting, when you have an event, the idea that you can pop up a tent, which has air conditioning, lighting, and power built in, and you’re self sufficient off the grid, you provide shade, shelter, power, air conditioning, heating, what have you, this is a real resource for the times that we’re in now today, but also the technology going forward is that we want to do more with fewer materials. So if your tent can provide power and it can provide lighting, it can provide heating, why wouldn’t it? Why would you bring five products with you when you can bring one product with you? So we’re really excited about our growth in the off- grid market, and we hope that everyone takes a look at our product.
Steve Melito: Absolutely. It’s a fantastic product. Colin Touhey from Pvilion, thank you for being on the podcast. Again, you’re listening to New York State Manufacturing Now, the podcast’s powered by FuzeHub, which is New York State’s statewide MEP Center. MEP is an acronym for Manufacturing Extension Partnership. It is a nationwide network. All 50 states and in Puerto Rico, and here in New York State, we do it a little bit differently and do it a little bit better. We have 11 centers: 10 regional, one state. One thing that Colin mentioned was an acronym MTEC. They are the MEP center in the Hudson Valley. I just want to make sure to give them a shout- out. So without further ado, if you’re a startup, a manufacturer, inventor, entrepreneur, wherever you are in the process of manufacturing and you’re in New York State, we hope that you’ll continue to learn more about FuzeHub. You can find us online at www. fuzehub. com. And if you need manufacturing related assistance, please request a consultation with a manufacturing expert. Look at our website for that under the Solutions Program. Chances are you and I will probably have a conversation ourself, and if you’re successful, maybe someday you’ll be on the podcast too. On behalf of New York State Manufacturing Now, this is Steve Melito signing off.