For Dan Robinson (BComm’07) and Chad Fischl (BComm’07), it began as an entrepreneurship class assignment at the University of Saskatchewan in early 2007: identify an under-served market niche, conceive a hypothetical product for that niche, and develop a business plan to bring it to market.
The two hadn’t met before they were thrown together as partners in class, but they shared a passion for hockey. As any player knows, one of the hazards of the game is the sometimes eye-watering odour that emanates from equipment bags.
“It’s almost like a joke—hockey equipment smells so bad and everybody knows it, so it was an obvious market to go for,” Robinson said.
They dubbed their fictional product Shutout—something that would clean equipment and defend against odour like a champion goalie deflects pucks.
As they wrote their business plan, they drew on knowledge from a biotechnology class taught by Nick Ovsenek, associate dean of biomedical sciences and graduate studies in the College of Medicine.
“Dan did a project on nanomaterials, which got him interested in nanosilver,” says Ovsenek, who has acted as a technical advisor to the entrepreneurs and has helped with some of their promotional work.
Silver has been known for its antimicrobial properties for thousands of years. Robinson and Fischl wondered if a nanotech twist could provide what they needed.
“We found a company in South Korea that had the silver technology,” explained Robinson . “We said during our presentation, ‘This is one idea we came across; it’s natural silver and it’s antibacterial, and it’s the frontrunner for what we would use.’”
Robinson and Fischl realized their idea might actually be viable. They tapped family and friends for funding and travelled to South Korea to secure an exclusive North American licence for the patented technology.
What the Koreans had developed was nanosilver—particles of silver measured in billionths of metres, shaped and sized so they can remain suspended in solution indefinitely without settling out.
The partners dubbed this technology SilverSync, as the particles could be synchronized with different natural ingredients and end uses. Smaller particles kill bacteria first while larger ones provide persistent protection. Another “sync” connection is their quality control partners: the Canadian Light Source (CLS) synchrotron at the U of S.
“They’re nano-sized particles and not just any normal microscope can see them,” Robinson said. “The CLS can tell us here’s the concentration, here’s what the particles look like.”
While the tools of a national research facility might seem to be beyond the means of a start-up business, the CLS is not like other synchrotrons.
“SMEs (small to medium-sized enterprises) don’t have a lot of technical expertise to use the synchrotron,” said Jeff Cutler, director of industrial science and deputy director at the CLS.
“Most synchrotrons don’t have the staff to help you, whereas here, it’s ‘let us help you answer your problems.’”
Shutout needed a way to ensure their formulations contained the nanosilver, that it was working as advertised, and that it wouldn’t settle out of solution. CLS testing provided information for the manufacturer to adjust their processes so the product consistently met these standards.
They first focused selling their products to sports teams, particularly amateur hockey. One of Shutout’s local investors happened to be a friend of the head coach of an NHL hockey team, and he agreed to show the products to the team’s trainer.
One of the players, Nick Lidstrom, had been having skin problems, and was taping up his knees and elbows before every game. After using Shutout products, his skin cleared up. Impressed, the trainer invited Robinson and Fischl to send their products to a trade show hosted by the professional trainers association, which helped land them supply arrangements with other teams.
The success led the partners to look at other athletes for who skin diseases and odours might be a problem. Runners, wrestlers, and martial artists were obvious targets. The company secured testimonials from athletes such as Canadian UFC fighter Jason MacDonald and Matt Mazurick, captain of the U of S Huskies cross country running team, to start pushing into these markets.
Outside the world of athletics, several Saskatchewan potash mines now use Shutout products to treat boots and wash coveralls, and the partners are pursuing clients in the oil and gas industry in Alberta and Saskatchewan.
“A lot if the issues athletes have, industrial workers have,” explained Robinson. “They wear their work boots for eight hours a day or more. Our products are going to cross over well.”
Shutout has also developed laundering and cleaning systems for hotels and has had success with several British Columbia and Alberta resorts—some of them coincidentally owned by Murray Edwards (BComm’82, LLD’11), for whom the U of S Edwards School of Business is named. These include Fernie, Kimberley, Kicking Horse and Nakiska, where Shutout products have hit the slopes to treat rental ski and snowboard boots.
While Robinson and Fischl aren’t pulling down NHL-calibre revenues just yet, cash flow has become healthy enough to retire Robinson’s 1998 Chevy Lumina for a pair of new Ford Platinum pickup trucks to serve as their mobile offices as they drum-up sales. They’ve also hired research chemist Zach Belak (BSc’04, PhD’11) to formulate new products and improve the existing lineup, and another employee to bolster sales efforts.
“Since the beginning, Chad and I agreed we’ve got to do this full time or not at all,” Robinson said. “We’ve got to grind it out and make this our 100 per cent focus. We’ve been able to do that and get it to the point where it is now our career.”