U of S Entrepreneurs Score with Shutout

By Michael Robin, Research Communications Specialist, University of Saskatchewan 

For Dan Robinson (BComm’07) and Chad Fischl (BComm’07), it began as a class assignment 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 an entrepreneurship class at the Edwards School of Business at the University of Saskatchewan, 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 says.  

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: could a nanotech twist provide what they needed?

“We found a company in South Korea that had the silver technology,” Robinson says. “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 killed bacteria first while larger ones provided persistent protection. Another “sync” connection is their quality control partners: the Canadian Light Source synchrotron at the U of S.

“They’re nano-sized particles and not just any normal microscope can see them,” Robinson says. “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,” says 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.’”

Shut Out 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.

The partners also drew on U of S-based expertise to meet the demands of selling products in Canada. They provided Shutout promotional materials to French professor Anne Marie Wheeler for use as class translation assignments, and provided the entire class with tickets to a French production in return.

With promotional materials and product in hand and quality control taken care of, it was time for some old-fashioned selling.

“A lot of times, with mines or sports stores, or teams, we’re just calling a head office and asking, ‘Can I talk to the manager, can I talk to the owner, can I talk to…’ – fill in the blank. Then it’s introducing ourselves and trying to get in there,” Robinson says.

They first concentrated on 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,” Robinson says. “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, 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 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 says. “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.”