Getting Down and Not So Dirty: A Conversation with Buffalo Technology Group’s Dr. Emily Hunt & Benton Allen
How would you describe BTG Products to someone who has never heard of you before?
Benton: It’s an evolving statement because there is some level where our spouses still don’t know exactly what we do. Copper Clean has been great for that, like [Dr. Hunt] said, because it’s so relatable. How do you kill microorganisms on doorknobs? That is so much easier to convey to someone than our MIC-Guard product, which inhibits microbiologically-influenced corrosion on oilfield pipelines. What I would say about what I want us to be as a company and how we try to convey it to other people is: we create simple, safe, and effective solutions to help people and businesses combat microorganisms. So, if you have a problem with a mold or with a bacteria or a virus or a fungi, if it’s causing some kind of issue within your operation, then we help you create a solution that will neutralize that microorganism.
Dr. Hunt: It’s true! We have products that you can mix into your paint that prevents mold growing in any place that you paint. We now have climbing chalk that is antimicrobial. With Palo Duro Canyon being right here, we have a lot of climbers and climbing gyms and workout gyms. When the pandemic hit—and we had this product before that—all of these places got shut down because of high-touch surfaces. We all share the equipment that we’re using. We have an antimicrobial chalk that is a very high level chalk product anyways because of the way we are controlling the particle size and ingredients. We have products for any kind of bacteria or mold or virus problem that you have, and again, we are not anti-microbe, because we think there’s definitely a time and place for them; we know that they do good, but we can help protect materials that are important to an industry, an asset and equipment that people need for their business to function. We can help protect that from damage that’s caused by microbes in the environment. We love new projects and that is why we can never quite scope it completely because we always have something new in mind, where we’re going next.
Benton: And now we’re selling antimicrobial pens on Etsy!
Dr. Hunt: I would say one of our most recent developments that’s been pretty exciting for us is that our products are now available online at Home Depot and Lowe’s; big-box stores were a goal for us and now we did that!
What were your intentions when creating BTG Products and how has that changed for you over the course of your career?
Dr. Hunt: We developed Buffalo Technology Group (BTG) Products as a platform for distributing products that we were developing so that our creations can be used in all kinds of industries.
Benton: One thing that we have learned in the process—I don’t know if we necessarily foresaw this beforehand—but there is a gap; it’s a challenging thing to go from academic research development, technology, or fundamental science principles and take that to the market. It’s still kind of a developing field, it changes very often based on what’s going on in academia and what’s going on in the market. We’re excited to be interacting in that space and trying to forge a path for other companies to do the same.
Do you feel like the WT Enterprise Center has helped you with that transition from the research into the marketplace?
Benton: They’ve definitely been a great resource! We’ve enjoyed working with our coaches there and with the organization as a whole. They’ve been very valuable to us.
What have been some of your biggest wins and biggest challenges since creating BTG Products?
Benton: [Dr. Hunt] just hit one of our biggest wins, getting into big-box stores. We were recipients of the EnterPrize Challenge in 2018, and that was one of the big things we wanted to use those funds for—spearheading an effort to get into big-box stores with our Paint Guard product. That has been really fulfilling to now see that come to fruition—a level of fruition—we’re still wanting to get on more shelves, but that was a big win for us. We’ve also gotten some big contracts with oil majors. We’re now a vendor for Shell, and we’ve also done some projects with Chevron, which are big-time wins for us. We really appreciate them.
Dr. Hunt: For challenges, we had an early version of Paint Guard that we were shipping out. Everything was going really well and then we ordered a different set of bottles and some kind of reaction between the bottle and our Paint Guard caused all of these Paint Guards that we shipped out to pressurize and basically burst. It was a total 911 group call, because someone had left a case in their trunk and it got so hot that they just burst. We had to quickly reconvene, pull all those orders back, replace all of the material; it was a few moments of panic.
Benton: On a broader scale, it’s challenging to operate in a space that’s right there on the cutting edge of research and a finished product, and so that is always, like she said, a challenge. You know something works in the laboratory, but then there’s really exponentially more steps than you would expect to get that product from the Petri dish onto whatever shelf you’re trying to put it on. That, in general, is our largest struggle, along with going to trade shows.
Dr. Hunt: Yes! And having to be super social and extroverted for several days. It’s definitely a learned behavior for us, but it is exhausting. There is no talking at night. We are done with work. It is silent.
Where do you see the future of mechanical engineering? And do you see it as a growing profession?
Dr. Hunt: We see technology merging in general. Engineering, computer science, and mathematics are really becoming more interdisciplinary where we’re looking at machine learning and artificial intelligence and smart materials. To have those things, you need mechanical engineers and electrical engineers and computer scientists. I would say yes, the field is absolutely growing, specifically for mechanical. Mechanical is the broadest type of engineering, so we kind of think in the workplace you could teach a mechanical engineer to do anything. So they are problem solvers inherently and can adapt into different fields of engineering.
What does it mean for you to be a woman in engineering?
Dr. Hunt: I think the best kind of engineering and problem-solving comes from diverse teams working together, people from different cultures, backgrounds, experiences and thought processes. That’s one of the things we’ve been able to do with our research team, specifically with BTG Products. We all have different backgrounds, different experiences, and we can create some incredible solutions because of that. I feel like it’s a strength to be a female in the field of engineering because it is different; it does diversify a team. About 10% of mechanical engineers are females, so I feel I bring a different perspective to a problem-solving team. It’s meaningful for me, too, because I feel like little girls are not going to think about being engineers unless they see someone like them that’s an engineer, so I don’t take that lightly. I think that it’s an important role and something that I am grateful to be a part of.
Seeing as you are a speaker, author, and hold multiple patents, what is some advice that you have for young people entering into this field?
Dr. Hunt: My advice would be that your ideas are important. It doesn’t matter if they seem impossible right now. Sometimes those ideas that are most impossible right now are the technology that everyone is using 10 or 20 years from now. I think that I would encourage people and children to take those ideas and really treat them carefully to explore them and not to give up on them.
How important is communication for you as the president of BTG Products?
Dr. Hunt: Communication is important for all of us, there’s four of us on the leadership team that work closely together in all facets of the business, and I think that a strength of our team is communication. There’s almost zero minutes of the day where one of us is not communicating with another one of us. We do try to build in a little off-time, sometimes on a weekend or on one day or something, but we really are communicating all the time. I think that openness of communication, the fact that we respect each other’s ideas and communication that way has created a really strong working environment for all of us.
What are your responsibilities within product development for BTG Products?
Benton: I love the way we have organized things within our company. It’s pretty non-traditional, but as a start-up we all wear a lot of hats. Dr. Hunt has been in the lab before helping us pack orders—that’s just kind of how we operate. Everyone steps up; no one is scared to pick up a broom or box up a product and take it to UPS. So I love that aspect of my job! I love getting to be intimately involved in really every facet of what we’re doing as a company. Specifically though, I am really passionate about product design and product development, which is just engineering at its core—solving problems—using the knowledge that you have to solve a problem that helps somebody. I’ve loved getting to do that with the Copper Clean line and with some of our other lines of products, too. That’s been really fun. I really enjoy that part of my business: the product development and design.
Dr. Hunt: Benton is actually the lead inventor on our patent for Copper Clean. He’s been doing some serious product design this last year.
What does it mean for you, Benton, to work at WT as a former student, and how do you feel the engineering program has helped you to prepare for the work that you do now?
Benton: I am a local, born and raised; like [Dr. Hunt], I grew up in the Amarillo-Canyon area and came to football games at Kimbrough Stadium my entire life. I came to college here kind of begrudgingly; it felt like the right option even though I didn’t really think it was, but once I got on campus it was just the best choice I could have made. I met Dr. Hunt very early on during my first semester here on campus. So, experiencing WT as an undergraduate, a grad student, a student worker, a minion in the research laboratories, and now getting to work for the University in a professional role and getting to develop things in our labs in Canyon, which are being used at the bottom of the ocean and across the world, I can’t imagine a more fulfilling role or opportunity as an engineer. I’d love to call myself an inventor; that’s the ultimate goal!
Dr. Hunt: We are! The patent issuance gives you that!
Benton: And maybe so! I get to do that here, and I just love that. I’m so thankful for Dr. Hunt, and we have a great board of investors that support us and have allowed us to get to this point. For everyone at the WT Enterprise Center and Amarillo Economic Development, they’ve all played a part in helping us get here where we are taking technology from our labs in Canyon and installing it all across the world.
How has COVID-19 impacted the development of your products, especially with Copper Clean?
Benton: A lot of times people don’t already have a connection in their mind between what they learned in high school microbiology and the metals that they interact with in the oil and gas industry. If we’re looking for silver linings, humanity’s awareness of microorganisms is significantly different than it was a year ago. That has allowed us to focus more on the strengths and the nuances of our product lines and less on the fundamental education of what microorganisms are. That’s been positive for us, in the development of our Copper Clean antimicrobial service line that stemmed directly from the pandemic, and we were able to harvest technology that we developed in the past and implemented in a way that re-instilled confidence among consumers, customers, and facility visitors during the pandemic. We’ve done our best to make some bright spots out of some really dark times.
Dr. Hunt: One of the things that has been good for us in this last year is that we work on a lot of materials for very specific applications—we’re looking at down-hole oil and gas and offshore fouling projects that are very specific, very tailored materials—and what we’ve been able to do in this last year is launch materials that can be used everywhere by people we care about at our own University, our own local restaurants, movie theaters, and our airport. So, I think that it’s been very satisfying for us in this last year to create a product that is more “people first” rather than such a highly technical scientific application.