In a world dominated by the lean startup model and the “minimum viable product” approach, Nutech Metals is something of an outlier, having spent nearly six years doing research and development in pursuit of a new technology for body armor.
The goal, said Jim Borque, partner and technical lead on the project, is to develop a next-generation body armor for military and law-enforcement personnel, offering a critical mix of lower weight and higher performance than the body armor that’s currently on the market.
So, “minimum viable” isn’t an option.
“One of the challenges in the industry has been to change the approach to solve the equation,” Borque said. “You might be able to enhance performance, but there’s compromise in the weight, or reduce the weight, and the cost of the materials are astronomical. Finding the right mix has been the challenge. … We can leverage new technologies and innovative materials to put together a system that would help meet the criteria they’re looking for.”
Borque approached Elaine Saab and her husband years ago with the idea, and she decided to partner with him, facilitating his research, and offering support and patience.
“Startups are just what they are—you want to start up, but you might have to start over,” Saab said. “And when you start up you have to be a good problem-solver. If you don’t have the endurance, you’re going to fail.”
Saab brings the business acumen to the partnership, along with their other partner, Brenda Howard. “We have complementing abilities—business, financial, legal, technical—we bring to the project. My partner Brenda and I have done projects before, so we felt as a team that this would be a good thing for us to be involved in as investors.”
Saab credits Innovate Mississippi with being encouraging and particularly helpful while they were forming the company; NuTech also received a $10,000 proof-of-concept award from the Mississippi Seed Fund in 2018.
“They were very interested in how we were developing the company. They’ve been really available to meet with us; Tony met with us three or four times,” she said of Innovate Mississippi CEO Tony Jeff. “They continue to be that place where we can go, and they’ll listen to what we were doing or saying. They were excited about it and saw an opportunity.”
Without saying too much about the technology, Borque and Saab are confident that they will soon bring to market something that will make a big impact for the industry.
“There are a lot of products out there that perform well, but don’t keep the wearer engaged in the fight,” Borque said. “[Other body armor] might stop one round, but then they’re compromised, particularly if they’re using ceramics. We want to keep [the wearers] engaged in the fight.”
While the core mission of the company is to improve the survival rates of soldiers and first responders, Saab also sees an opportunity for the company to be an important part of the community in south Mississippi, and to be a good corporate citizen.
“I just want to be able to give some good back. I do believe from what I’ve seen over the years of working with economic developers, our government leaders, the bankers—there’s good people in Mississippi who have been very helpful,” Saab said. “We have a patented product, (and) we’re doing our final testing, but we did not get to this point just by ourselves. We’ve had a lot of help.”
“We can really grow this opportunity significantly with the help of those that buy in and help us to grow it,” Borque said. “Everyone sees the capability and the potential here, and it’s a matter of getting everything aligned and (taking) advantage of it. What we have is innovative, and it will attract a lot of attention because of its performance.”
Their next steps in 2019 are to finalize the design, and begin marketing to military and law enforcement, as well as get the appropriate certifications for the product. Saab says they have funding in place and a commitment from the partners to continue seeing it through, even if it takes a lot of faith.
“We’ve been patient with the process—Elaine and Brenda—they’ve been patient,” Borque said. “If you try to rush into things, you’ll make compromises along the away.”
However, building a better body armor isn’t compatible with compromise, so the team is taking it a step at a time.
“I’m not the type of person who is going to want to invest in something and then sit back,” Saab said. “I’m a pain in the you-know-what. I’ve tried to help Jim get to the right people around him and get him the right people he needed.”