A colony of innovation

In-house chemists, an on-site laboratory, environmental entrepreneurs: This isn’t your average Hutterite colony. 

By Pat Rediger.

There are few Canadian manufacturers more iconic and synonymous with innovation than Bombardier. The company even has its own Museum of Ingenuity — reopened this past June after an 18-month, $14 million overhaul.

Meandering through the sleek facility, located in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, it is hard to ignore the similarities between many of Bombardier’s flagship products, such as the Ski-Doo snowmobile, the Sea-Doo watercraft, and the tri-wheeled Can-Am Spyder. But beyond the obvious comparisons in design and operational interface, one shared theme bubbles beneath the surface: These vehicles didn’t just revolutionize recreational transportation, they created entirely new markets.

Two-thousand kilometres west, near the town of Morris, Manitoba, the Oak Bluff Hutterite Colony has embraced that same approach.

After more than six decades dedicated almost exclusively to agriculture, the colony has begun to reap the rewards of diversification and shifting trends in ‘green’ technology — finding new ways to capitalize on existing expertise.

It required, however, some trial and error.

Their first attempt was a company called iRecycle, which aimed to fill a niche in the distribution of recycled products. Unfortunately, the origin of the ‘niche’ quickly became apparent: There simply wasn’t any money in it.

So, a handful of entrepreneurial colony members went back to the drawing board. They learned how recycled glass and epoxy could be combined to create terrazzo flooring, and struck out to find an environmentally-friendly epoxy that could be paired with an ample supply of local glass. When this proved impossible, they decided to create their own, and EcoPoxy was born.

“It became clear that it was going to come down to real chemistry,” recalls EcoPoxy Co-Founder and CEO Jack Maendel. “We got in touch with the folks at CME, or Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters, who helped connect us with potential chemists, and customers.”

Within months, the young company hired three trained chemists and began construction on a new “state-of-the-art” laboratory.

Epoxy resins, first offered commercially in 1946, are used by many industries for protective coatings or in structural applications, from laminates and composites to tooling and casting. Traditionally, these epoxies have been petroleum-based, and there have been limited attempts to incorporate bio-based ingredients.

Not so with EcoPoxy.

“Anything that can be made from oil can be made from soybeans,” explains Maendel, whose product line of resins and coatings use up to 52 per cent bio-based material, including soybean oil, flax oil, and cashew nut oil, among others. “In a sense, we’re not competing with anyone. We’ve created a whole new market for products that didn’t exist before.”

Maendel believes the primary ingredient to their success has been an unwavering commitment to research and development. Through these investments, EcoPoxy has been able to introduce a budding offering of epoxies, coatings, resins, hardeners, and various pigments.

Take, for example, their Multi-Purpose Sealer, for use on wood, metal, fibreglass, and slightly damp surfaces. It contains no volatile organic compounds, is odorless, and is non-toxic.

“Traditionally, epoxies are used in factories with lots of ventilation,” he says. “We, on the other hand, are able to create products that can be used in non-ventilated workspaces, homes, and studios.”

Other solutions have also attracted considerable attention.

The company has unveiled lightweight laminate systems for the manufacture of high-performance composite parts, as well as a specialized coating for use in water tanks to protect against structural changes due to variations in air, ground, or water temperature.

In recent years, EcoPoxy joined the Western Retail Lumber Association and has become a staple at its annual buying shows. At his first show with EcoPoxy, Maendel was hoping to enlist at least one retailer, and ended up landing 45, mainly Windsor Plywood outlets. The brand is now being distributed through more than 55 retail stores and has been sold to customers all over the world.

Processes have evolved, too.

In addition to growing EcoPoxy’s plant-based inputs, the colony is now leveraging its 8,000-head chicken venture to increase its role as a self-supplier. Currently, one-fifth of EcoPoxy’s coatings are formulated using ‘recycled’ egg shells.

“Egg shells usually end up in the landfills, because there are very few uses for them,” says Maendel. “We’re proud to have found a way to divert that waste stream. And, by 2018, we’re planning to use recycled chicken feathers to make up 40 per cent of the plastic content in our containers.

“We’ll have one chicken producing revenue from two waste streams. How cool is that?”

While the company remains relatively small, the demand for EcoPoxy’s innovations has sparked new opportunities in places like Dubai, Australia, France, and the United Kingdom.

Maendel, though, is careful not to make the same mistake as other young manufacturers by allowing ambition to outpace capacity.

“It’s important to always look ahead. Yet, at this point, we’re not ready for that kind of expansion,” he says. “We don’t know what the future holds, but it’s clear that we’ve found a new enterprise for our colony, which will allow it to prosper into the future.”