Chattanooga entrepreneur Jayesh Doshi was into his fifth year of ramping-up eSpin Technologies, Inc., when lightning struck in two ways – a major grant award from the federal government and strong help from the Mayors of Chattanooga and Hamilton County.
“We were the first winner in Tennessee of an Advanced Technology Program grant from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST),” Doshi explained. The award, announced in 2003, made it possible for eSpin to significantly advance the scaling-up of its technology. It also put pressure on the company to find additional space.
“I had no idea that (local) government officials could help,” Doshi recalls. Yet, he found then Mayors Bob Corker (Chattanooga) and Claude Ramsey (Hamilton County) wanting to know what they could do to keep eSpin in the community.
“We looked at a building in Enterprise South,” he says. “I was scared of the size, it was too big.”
The two local governments made it possible for eSpin to relocate, leasing the building to the company for one dollar a year for five years.
Doshi, whose journey appears to occur in five-year cycles, used the NIST funding to clearly build the business. eSpin started manufacturing material for big corporations, creating a channel of revenues from sales, and ceased writing grants by 2006.
“We used money very, very frugally and put as much money as possible back into the business,” Doshi said.
Yet, five years after the highs of 2003 with the NIST grant and the new building, eSpin was again challenged.
“No one predicted 2008,” Doshi said of the deep and long recession. “We were generating revenues, but not enough to support the business.”
He says it was the first time that eSpin was forced to borrow money, a reality that was further exacerbated by the five-year term of his lease with the city and county.
“We had to buy the building or relocate,” Doshi said. “We were truly blessed that we had friends who believed in us and loaned the money to buy the building.”
By late 2009, things were again looking good for eSpin. It won a $6 million NIST Technology Innovation Program grant to develop carbon fiber, a three-year project that ends in April 2013.
The eSpin of today is significantly different from the company Doshi founded in 1998.
“We became a product company versus the early days when we depended on them (other companies) taking the product to market,” he explained. “We want to be in control, and the way to do it is to make your own product.”
To illustrate this transformation, Doshi points to eSpin’s focus on worker health and safety and the company’s air filtration products that include wipes, filters and a soon to be released line of face masks and tissue engineered scaffolds.
“We are a very highly vertically-integrated company,” he says, adding that the focus is today on polymer nanofibers and a carbon fiber-based family of products. eSpin employs 26 people today.
Doshi says that eSpin’s future “looks very bright.” The soft-spoken Chief Executive Officer admits that there’s been “a lot of learning” along the way, but quickly adds that “we are yet to learn a lot.”
He is proud of the fact that he has boot-strapped the company, but acknowledges that eSpin will probably raise a round of capital soon to finance its growth.
Doshi is quick to note that he has faced challenges along the way, but he has maintained his core principles.
“You have to have patience, passion and stay hungry,” he advises. There’s also the matter of American jobs.
“It is very important that we manufacture here for people’s employment, but also for innovation,” Doshi says. “It (manufacturing) is going to come back.”