VaporLok CEO Brad Buscher describes the evolution of the company’s toxin-sealing technology and how it benefits the lamp recycling industry.
June 16, 2014
VaporLok Products is giving away its CFL recycling bag to our listeners. Simply fill out the contact form and enter the code GIGR PROMO in the Comments field here: http://bit.ly/vaporlok. Sign up for free now through July 1! JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome to another edition of Green is Good. I’m John Shegerian, your host, and today I’m honored to have with us Brad Buscher. He’s the Chairman and CEO of VaporLok Technologies. Welcome to Green is Good, Brad. BRAD BUSCHER: Thank you, John. It’s a pleasure to be with you this morning. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Brad, you have a fascinating company that’s really important with regards to the sustainability and recycling movement that’s now spreading around the world, but before we go into talking about your great VaporLok products, can you please give us your background story? You have a fascinating history from banker to expert on mercury. Can you walk us through that before we get started on VaporLok? BRAD BUSCHER: Well, I’d be happy to, John. Basically, our story is somewhat of a convoluted one. I used to own and operate a chain of rural community banks based in southern Minnesota and if you think about it, running a community bank is really a small exercise in micro economics because you get a sense of the ebb and flow of the communities at large, what makes them work, what doesn’t, where the problems are and you have to be kind of a little dim-witted not to pay attention to the ones that work and particularly, the ones that are focused on renewing or recurring revenue and over a period of time, we started to look at where the future is going to lie in various different things and we started to invest our capital accordingly. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And, you invested in a mercury company? BRAD BUSCHER: Well, here’s how that worked. I sold the banks about 22 years ago and we basically kept our group together. Banks are a little different, John, because they’re really finance companies disguised as banks. We financed a lot of esoteric stuff that the other people probably wouldn’t touch. We were the founders of the Indian Gaming Finance Industry here that started in Minnesota. We were on the ground floor of syndicating investment, if you will, in finance for a number of different multiple family housing projects around the country but it all started here in Minnesota so when I sold, we kept our group together and we went out and said alright, we can do the same thing but now we’re going to do it with my own capital. We started to surround that with bright young entrepreneurs and one day, lo and behold, this young man walked into my office with an idea that I thought was too good to be true and it was originally right after the clean air act was passed in 1992 and he had this bright idea, let’s go get in the lamp recycling business and I kind of looked at him and was like, ‘What?! Why would anybody want to do that?’ and he started explaining how prolific lamps were and I said, ‘Why are people going to have to recycle?’ and he gave me a quick short premier, I call it an, ‘edumacation’ on Mercury that at this time, I didn’t have and I thought let’s start paying attention to why this is important. We dug in and sure enough, he was right and ergo was the seeds of a company. He originally approached me to finance it. I looked at him and his name was Mark Edlund and I said, ‘Mark, I don’t really think this thing is financeable. However, this thing might make a perfect entree for an equity partner,’ and of course his question was, ‘Why don’t you consider it?’ and after a long pause and kind of dull air, I said, ‘Well I guess I just told you it should be an equity partner. Why not us?’ That was really how it all got started out, John. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That was in the early ’90s when you invested in mercury waste solutions? BRAD BUSCHER: It was in ’94, and we started the first big company in 1995, and what we really did was we focused in the industrial sector. For your listeners that may not know, mercury is an element. It’s prolific. It’s virtually impossible to try to give you a short list of what it’s used in. It’d be easier to give you a list of what it’s not been used in. Somewhere along its lifespan, incremental or instrumental either the manufacturing element or the conduction of electricity. It’s an asset to dissolve and reactive and it’s a standard measure of temperature and pressure and it has very unique properties and it’s a solid state. It’s a liquid and it has a gas, if you will, pressure point and it start to vaporize at 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Unfortunately, it also has some very negative health attributes, John. It has bioaccumulative, neurotoxic capabilities that can really make human beings not feel so good. That was the real driver behind why we wanted to get in that industry. Ultimately then, it was a big science project that took 15 years, but we’ve built the largest plant of its kind in the world and it was railroad-car-quantities full of stuff, soils, big reactors. Huge amount of chemistry had to go into figuring out how to extract it and what our business really was is we were going to change the composition that it was in to get it back to its elemental form. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it. And, how does Mercury Waste Solutions then lead into the genesis and evolution of VaporLok? BRAD BUSCHER: Well, one of the divisions we had inside Mercury Waste Solutions was a company called LampTracker and it was the first of its kind that invented lamp recycling that was basically in a prepaid container and our business model was different than anybody else at the time because we went after the small, if you will, collectors that didn’t have an outlet to have truckload type quantities and the costs were prohibited at the time and furthermore, they didn’t really know what to do with these things. If you’ve only got one or two lamps that are coming out of service, where do you put them? Most of them were storing them in unsafe conditions, often in the janitor’s closet or worse, right next to the power plant where the heating or forced air systems were in the place so then they break, as you may know and I’m sure many of your listeners know. Lamps are fragile. They break easily. Perhaps every one of us at some point or another in our lifespan has broken one or two or three and because of the low vapor pressure and the relatively high ambient temperatures that we keep them the buildings, it would proliferate and so the notion, John, is that people become indiscriminately exposed and unwittingly to an element which has very bioaccumulative toxic characteristics to it. In fact, today we’ve alleged, and I think the rest of the scientific community would concur, that your chances of mercury exposure are often more from incidental exposure from products such as lamps, which are prolific, than it is from any other source, although today we worry about eating fish, which we well should or at least moderate what we’re eating. We have to be concerned about what we’re breathing but by and large, why should we put ourselves at risk to deal with mercury containing products that are right in our homes or our place of business, particularly if we’re unaware of it? So, that company then became an evolution to really try to find a way to safely contain it during its period of time of accumulation and then ultimately to send it out through the common carrier system to dispose of it at a property recycling facility. Over time, John, what that really developed into was a health and safety product. Truly we were not just in the lamp recycling business. We were a health and safety product business and our evolution at the time, which was a paradigm changing product, was that we worked hard in conjunction with a couple universities, principally the University of Minnesota, to develop a product that could safely contain it. We developed a proprietary packaging and methodology, which we went on and applied for and were later granted a patent around that so that business scaled very nicely and indeed, the driver for it, John, was the compliance feature because with our reverse tracking mechanism, we could provide, if you will, analytics to the generators, which were impossible for them to get in any other way, to make sure that they were compliant. In some cases some of our big customers actually used it to make sure that the warranties that the manufacturers were providing on new lamps were consistent with what the average real lifespan was. As you may be aware if you walk into any department store, lighting is an important and integral part of how they merchandise their business and the right lighting footprint is very important so consequently, they’ll go in and do what they call prophylactic re-lamping periodically and that’s often to change the lighting so you don’t get the dim or the flickering lights but periodically just to improve the look or the feel or the touch or the tone so as a result, there would be large quantities of these things coming out and they had to have a safe and effective way to handle them and that’s where LampTracker came in. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Before we get into the story of LampTracker and more about VaporLok, I just want to welcome our listeners. If you’ve just joined us, we’ve got Brad Buscher on. He’s the Chairman and CEO of VaporLok Technologies, and to learn more about all of his innovative and important products, go to www.vaporlokproducts.com. Talk a little bit about the focus of you VaporLok Technology brand. BRAD BUSCHER: I’d be happy to, John. In the development of VaporLok, we really looked hard at these products that we had developed under the LampTracker brand name. We ultimately sold both Mercury Waste Solutions and LampTracker to Waste Management, who had the scale to really run these things, which is frankly what we do in our merchant banking entities. We kept the core technologies, which had to do with the roots or the foundations, if you will, of VaporLok and what VaporLok really was the technology that wrapped around to contain this stuff, to make sure that it didn’t escape providing it was properly packaged and as time went by, John, what we really started zeroing in on is that we were doing such a great job of containing it but what happens to somebody if one of these packages breaks, if it rips or is dropped? We’ve done such a great job of containing it. How do we now protect people from those incidental exposures? Because all these things are fragile, as I recently mentioned, so that led to a sequitious conversation that took about five years and multiple million dollars more research time. We wanted to focus on now really turning that thing into not just a containment vessel but a vessel that could actually capture the element as it became volatilized so that we really had several safeguards that were built in. That was not a small undertaking. At least it was over the head of our limited scientific knowledge that we had and so we decided to go out and we were going to find the experts in the industry, which led us in a very sequitious way to an entity based in Columbus, Ohio, that is a nuclear gas absorption industry. They were basically the principal founders behind radioactive particulate scrubbing that happens in virtually every wet-cell nuclear power plant built in the United States, and most of them overseas and after a relatively long courtship — it took them some while to really appreciate what we were trying to accomplish — we entered into a joint venture together to, in effect, come up with a solution to solve that and the genesis of that was this new invention that we have called Vapor Capture, which basically is a carbon impregnated matrix that goes inside these containers, John, so when inevitably these lamps break — and I can assure you that they all break at some point in time — not only is the mercury volatilizing, it now can be captured and it can be captured at such a high rate that there’s virtually no escape beyond the thresholds that any of the standard federal agencies are currently concerned about. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I’m on your website right now, and I’m looking at all your fascinating products, your VaporLok technology, Capture Advantage, so explain to our listeners then, your technology can be mailed out or shipped out to a person or an entity or a business that has light bulbs or other issues that need to be protected from breaking or getting mercury into the environment and then ship them back to your recycling facilities and make sure that the environment in the en route process does not get damaged in any way or no mercury is released. BRAD BUSCHER: Well, you just pretty much nailed it right there, John. The notion behind the product is that it’s there as a backstop for when something breaks and inevitably they all break, as I mentioned, and it is shipped out in the package when it is sent directly to either the single user or the multi-store distributor or possibly through a lighting distributor, whichever way that we, in that particular case, are going to market. Those are then involved or wrapped right into the package so that when it’s returned to us, if there is a breakage, we can be relatively assured that it’s been contained and then we put that through our normal reclamation process on the back end. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And, you’re the only company in the world that has this sealed process? None of your competition has any type of VaporLok seal that protects the mercury from then disseminating into the environment? BRAD BUSCHER: To our knowledge, there is no one who is on this particular esoteric niche, John, and further, there’s no one that’s really focused on the science that stands behind it. It was interesting that, you know, we’re the owner and the holder of various different patents in our different companies and some of them took up to 17-and-a-half years to get fully vetted out and go through trial and test and whatnot but the average time was about seven from start to finish. This last two pieces of technology that we got patented, from the day we applied to it until the government signed off on it was seven months, which gave us a pretty good indication that this was a paradigm shifting, if you will, evolution. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And, you mentioned early New Con International and Waste Management. Explain how your company, VaporLok Products, interrelates between those two entities and how are they involved. BRAD BUSCHER: You can think of Waste Management as really our vendor partner. Not only did we sell two private companies to them. They are the licensee in the United States of a VaporLok technology and indeed integral and virtually every product we ship out. They have incorporated our Vapor Capture, if you will, matrix and this gives them a unique position in the marketplace that virtually no other competitor can have. That is not an insignificant item for them because Waste is the largest solid waste transporter and also one of the largest haz waste companies in the United States today and this was a unique evolution for them. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So, they have a big advantage with your technology? BRAD BUSCHER: Exactly, so they’re a perfect distribution partner for us as well. We also have a number of products in ranges which the average consumer would never come in contact with. There are large industrial scale, if you will, shipments and materials that also need to be protected and whether it be large rectifiers, manometers, or even roll-off size quantities of soils, John, that you can incorporate this technology in. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And, how does New Con interrelate with VaporLok Products? BRAD BUSCHER: Well, New Con is basically our inventor on the product. They are manufacturers of the matrix and also, they are the ones that do all the QC and stand behind the science so we treat them like a vendor partner. They manufacture and make this to our specs. We then downstream and enclose it in each one of the packages as it’s run through one of our fulfillment centers and these are shipped out, depending on whether I say it’s either a onesie, twosie, or to multiple locations. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it, and Brad, we’re down to the last two-and-a-half minutes or so. Can you share with our listeners, what are the recycling rates for lamps? It sounds like you’ve got a business that’s not only doing well now, but it’s going to be continuing to boom in the future. What are the current recycling rates and what does the future hold? BRAD BUSCHER: That’s a great question, John. One of the reasons that I’m still in this industry and I’m passionate about it and all the people that have been with me now for many years are is that the recycling rates in the United States are still abysmally low and that’s a function of a number of different reasons, but predominantly, it’s about public awareness and secondly, there really hasn’t been safe and effective ways to accumulate these things. Marry that, if you will, with the sunset of the manufacturer of incandescent lamps in the United States, let alone the sale of them and there’s a conversion going on, as we speak right now, to more energy efficient lighting and there’s really at least three alternatives; LEDs, which I’m sure the public is well aware of. There’s an ISA compliant halogen lamp that’s out right now but that generates a tremendous amount of excess heat. There’s an ISA-compliant candescent, which really doesn’t provide much energy savings vis-á-vis the old incandescents at all and then you’ve got CFLs, both for at home and the standard fluorescent floor and UVs that have been in the commercial and the industrial marketplace. With that explosion of volume and that focus now on energy efficiency, one of the unmet needs is what do the consumer do with these things? Most consumer have been schooled and trained to take your incandescents and throw them in the garbage. Virtually every state in the union band them now from their landfills and many have more proscriptive regulations and laws on the books that have handling mechanisms in it but there really hasn’t been an efficient and safe way to do that. This was a gigantic, if you will, hole in the armor of that well meaning infrastructure that was put in place so our notion was pretty simple. Let’s find a way and look past distribution panels, John, to get just basically the core package in people’s hands so when you take those CFLs out of service, what do you do with them? Where do you take them? How can you easily find a place to take them in for recycling? We think eventually this will be part of a single stream system but we’re not quite there yet. We’ve got some more work to do, both with the public marketplace and the regulatory market places and also with I’d say the public relations piece, to educate people again about what’s really going on here. Really, the discovery we had, John, and I glossed over this, that was really the epiphany behind it is, that if we took some time in really the science behind developing it, you can’t manage anything you can’t measure and it took a long time to come up with the instrumentation to measure how high these levels went in a standard package, both a CFL pack and let alone, an industrial pack and when we found out how very high, dangerously high those levels went, we knew we really had to do something about it. We had to get going hard here with the R&D effort to come up with a product to meet that and we believe that once the public, let alone the regulators and the marketplace and individuals find out about how high those levels are, they’re going to want to protect themselves. Most people can’t afford LEDs right now. They’ll come, but when they do, in the meantime, there’s going to be a tremendous amount of these that are going to have to be taken out of service and properly recycled and it’s our goal to hit that niche. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Well, to buy Brad’s great products, go to www.vaporlokproducts.com. Thank you, Brad, for being a visionary sustainability innovator and expert. You are truly living proof that green is good. BRAD BUSCHER: Thank you so much, John. Pleasure being with you.