A Ryerson chemical engineering grad has won $500,000 to launch his own chemical engineering business. Seyed Nourbakhsh came up with the idea of a self-powered, automatic swimming pool chlorinating system a year after working at a Burlington pool company as part of a co-op placement during his final year in 2013.
In the same year, Nourbakhsh won all stages of the Norman Esch Engineering, Innovation and Entrepreneurship Awards at Ryerson and received $38,000 in funding for his project.
Formarum, Nourbakhsh’s new company, is the result of that initial funding. His product, the Dive Smart Sanitizer, features a hydro turbine which generates electricity to produce chlorine. This makes it easier and cheaper for pool owners to chlorinate their pools. The device is currently under development and is not commercially available in Canada yet.
And last month, Nourbakhsh participated in the 43North startup competition, where he walked away with $500,000 USD to grow his company. Nourbakhsh is set to receive the money in quarterly payments next year.
The Ryersonian spoke to Nourbakhsh about the future of Formarum and advice he would give to students who want to be entrepreneurs.
Q: You’ve just won half a million dollars to launch your company. What are your plans with the money?
A: Within the next 12 months, we have to move our production. We have our offices in Canada, where we developed our product, but our production is going to be in Buffalo. So I will relocate to Buffalo starting this January. My plan is to put things into production by the end of next year. We have pre-orders for the product which we are trying to deliver. After three years of research and development, and another year of manufacturing planning, delivering a product would be a significant milestone to achieve by the end of 2017.
Q: Did you always have plans to have production in America?
A: The swimming pool market is so huge in the United States. We want to be close to our customers. We’re buying a lot of our supplies in the U.S. and it doesn’t make sense to cross the border when we are receiving and shipping the product. We always knew the U.S. would be a very important market and we always wanted to go there. We just didn’t know it would be this early. The 43North competition really allowed us to do that upfront. It saved us a lot of time in the future to move things and have production in the United States.
Q: Why did you decide to become an entrepreneur?
A: I guess a lot of it is really based on your personality and how you view life in general. I don’t think I really chose it. When I started at the pool company, I was really looking at how I could improve the product. It’s built into my mentality to look for improvements. Once you see the improvement and once you see there’s a market, it’s inevitable that you’re going to try to take advantage of that. In my mind, it was never a conscious decision.
The funding I got from the Norman Esch awards was really what I think changed my path early on. I think that if that award wasn’t there, I would have just got a job for a few years. It’s possible that I would have come back to starting my own company, but it saved me a lot of time.
Q: What was the reaction from your friends and family when you told them you were starting your own company?
A: I’ve been very fortunate. My family is really supportive. They were my first investors after Ryerson. When I needed more capital, my family loaned me some money and as I got pre-orders they invested as well. Both financially and emotionally I don’t think I would have been able to do this without my family and my friends. The first two engineers I hired were my Ryerson classmates.
Q: What is the biggest challenge you faced so far and how did you overcome it?
A: Coming from a theoretical engineering school and going into a real workplace and getting in touch with real problems, there’s usually a period of incubation where you learn real life engineering problems. The co-op program helped me get a sense of that. But finishing school and going into the world of business, you have a harsh introduction to not just real-world engineering problems but real-world business problems—having sales, promoting your product, raising money. These are the skills they didn’t teach me in engineering school.
Q: What advice would you give to students who want to start their own company?
A: Take advantage of the programs that Ryerson offers. Those Norman Esch awards are waiting for you. It’s really hard for a new grad to raise $38,000. No one is really going to invest in you or give you a commitment or any sort of validation. If you have an idea, that money is there for you to give it a try and see if it works or not. It’s a unique opportunity. The second thing is, you really learn on the job. You can read about business and marketing but the only way to really learn how to run a business is to start one and see how it goes. Don’t be afraid to start something.
Q: Besides manufacturing your product during the next year, what’s next for your company?
A: We have tons of ideas for the application of our hydro turbine beyond the swimming pool market. We want to look at the chemical processing industry for example, as well as all sorts of interesting applications that you can build that turbine in. We could either simplify equipment or regenerate green electricity for those facilities. We’re going to try and look at those applications and come up with more products going forward. That’s our long-term goal for the next five years.
The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Correction: The original version of this article said Seyed Nourbakhsh came up with the idea of a self-powered, automatic swimming pool chlorinating system while working at a Burlington pool company. We regret this error.