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Business Observer Friday, Sep. 27, 2019 6 months ago

Chemistry firm makes business mark with markers

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Faced with a perplexing challenge, a business-focused team of scientists went inside the box. Up next: marker market domination.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

It was a late summer afternoon in 2017 when the limitations of a digital printer pushed chemistry executive Tonya Tremitiere to the brink of destructive frustration.  

A genuine smartest person in the room, with a biology degree from Columbia University, among other credentials, Tremitiere works for Esprix Technologies. The south Manatee County-based high-performance chemicals company, with $15.4 million in revenues last year, has clients in a host of business-to-business industries, from automobiles to pharmaceuticals to circuit boards. It also manufactures specialty toner products for printing security documents and printing on ceramics, metals and textiles. 

Tremitiere says toner is a “complex art” involving characteristics like charge, flow and particle size. Tremitiere sought to streamline the company’s research and development in making toner — but the printer’s limits stymied her.

Starting with a concept she learned while recently earning a second degree from Columbia, an MBA, Tremitiere went inside the box — rather than the corporate axiom of think outside the box. She also used a theory Steve Jobs made popular: deletion. Like when Jobs deleted the idea of a Blackberry-style physical keyboard for the iPhone.  

“I looked at our printer, and I looked for what I could delete in there,” Tremitiere says. “I took the chemistry and supplies in there and said, ‘Let’s put it in a writing device.’”

Tremitiere envisioned a marker that could transfer a design drawn on plain paper to a fabric or other material. Some two years later — and more than $1 million in research and development — the product, Artesprix, is a reality, in Esprix’s patent-pending Permanent Thermal Transfer Markers. The funding came from company profits.

Using the firm’s unique sublimation process, which adds heat and pressure to the drawing, the markers can permanently transfer colors onto a multitude of substrate materials. The list includes totes, mugs, T-shirts, luggage tags and more. The process requires different transfer times, from one to seven minutes, and different temperatures, usually between 350 and 400 degrees, while using a heat press or iron. Artesprix is the core product of Esprix Impressions, an Esprix Technologies subsidiary created for the venture. Officials expect to add more Esprix Impressions products soon, such as stamp pads.

Although Artesprix faces a slew of obstacles, from customer education to fending off cheap Chinese knockoffs, Esprix executives are confident in its future. “We see big potential with this,” Esprix Technologies Founder and Managing Partner Phil Nace says. “It’s a big investment, and we might make some stumbles, but we believe it’s worth the risk.”

‘It’s a big investment, and we might make some stumbles, but we believe it’s worth the risk.’ Philip Nace, Esprix Technologies

Getting Artesprix to market was the first challenge.

Tremitiere, for one, says doubters dominated the conversation when she announced her marker plans. Even the entrepreneurial-minded Nace worried about “going into an abyss” with the company’s first consumer-based product after 25 years of business-to-business.

“People laughed and said, ‘Oh my God, this will never work,’” Tremitiere says. “Soon a few people started whispering that maybe it can work, then some people started talking about it, and it prolongated from there.”

“Before you know it, we were chemists gone crafting," adds Ashley Nace, an Esprix sales manager and Philip Nace’s daughter.

Artesprix debuted at the Creativation trade show in Phoenix in January 2018. “Anybody who’s anybody in crafts goes to this trade show,” Tremitiere says. The products were a hit. “We air-shipped in 1,000 boxes,” Tremitiere adds, basically the entire inventory. “And we sold out in two days.”

The ink for the Permanent Thermal Transfer Markers is made in Esprix’s lab/offices. It’s shipped to a manufacturing partner in Eastern Europe to be made into the marker then back to Sarasota. The product is currently sold online, on Amazon and other sites, plus some art supply and craft stores. Esprix also has a pending deal to sell Artesprix in one of the largest big-box craft stores in the country.

Up next? Figuring out what markets to penetrate. Possibilities include schools, fundraising groups and night-out businesses, like Painting with a Twist. The company has fielded a few calls to white label the markers for others but passed, instead wanting to figure out the market first.

“There’s a lot of other products we can do with this,” Phil Nace says. “I see this getting really big. The daughter will take over for the mother. And I’d be very happy with that.”

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