The office of Giles Dillingham is unique, eclectic, and full of resources; very much like Giles Dillingham. The corner office is filled with books, antique tools, paintings by his beloved wife, family photos, and of course, a very nice stereo set-up.
Giles, BTG Labs’ Founder and Chief Scientist, can often be found typing eagerly away at a report while listening to classical music, or seated at the Cherrywood table, collaborating with colleagues.
One Friday evening, as the Cincinnati sun began to sink, I shared an end of the week beer with Giles in his lovely office to hear the origin story of BTG.
Emily: So, Giles, you started BTG Labs. Where did it begin?
Giles: Well, after I finished my PhD at the University of Cincinnati, I had a job waiting for me at Dow Chemical up in Midland, Michigan. And, I worked there for five years in a variety of assignments, mostly in polymer processing and surface properties. Central Research at Dow in the 90’s was an amazing place to work. It was a very academic environment with amazing scientists from all fields. I spent most of my time in the laboratory. I learned and grew a whole lot.
E: And, then what?
G: Well, after I’d been there five years, I got a call from the father of an old friend who had started a plastics compounding company in Northern Kentucky. He was building up his company and he wanted a technical director; someone to design and analyze. It was a big decision to leave the security of a company like Dow Chemical to work with a small startup, and Ligia and I agonized over it for a long time. In the end, it was the excitement of making a difference in a small company along with the cultural aspects of living near a city like Cincinnati that caused us to take the jump. So, we moved down there and I worked for about three years before it became obvious that it wasn’t a great fit, for a variety of reasons.
E: Then you came up to Cincinnati?
G: Yup. I wasn’t sure what to do next. Talking with my old advisor from the University of Cincinnati (Jim Boerio), he said he had a post doc available that could tide me over while I looked for the next opportunity. This was 1995 or so. We were expecting our third child.
And you know, it was a great set-up, working in the University again. I had great students to work with, a great lab to work in, and I had a wonderful library just a few floors up.
Giles nods nostalgically and sips on a cold beer.
It was then that my advisor said, “Why don’t you think about starting a company and trying to commercialize some of the work we’re doing here.” And I thought, hey, that sounds interesting.
E: And, what was the work you were doing there?
G: Well, a wide range of materials science projects. Mostly working with a lot of materials all related to adhesion and interfaces and stuff. I did a lot of work in plasma treatment processes, scratch resistant coatings for vinyl flooring, wear resistant coatings for oil seals on caterpillar tractor treads, wind shield adhesives…. A broad range of stuff, but most of it had to do, in one way or another, with surfaces, interfaces, and adhesion.
E: Getting things to stick together, or I suppose to stay stuck together.
Giles laughs, slightly.
G: Right. And you know, I was happy. It was a great lab to work in, it was close to home. I could ride my bike to work.
So, while I was there (UC), I incorporated BTG Labs and applied for an SBIR grant from the EPA to create green corrosion resistant coatings that didn’t involve solvents and stuff like that. That was an extension of some of the work I was involved in at UC. I got that grant—one of the more exciting things that has happened to me—and then I got a Phase II grant.
While I was at UC, I also got to work on the CAI (Composites Affordability Initiative) program, where we started looking at wetting measurements to try to predict if you can do a good job adhesively bonding composite materials for aircraft, and that’s where the work that eventually resulted in the Surface Analyst technology started.
The early days, back around 1999 or so, living from grant to grant was tough. At one point, the grant money ran out, I got discouraged, and I decided, well, I’m going to fold up my tent and get a real job. So, I called up some buddies of mine, Bob Gray and Eric Collins, who own Maverick Corp. I said, hey, I’ve got some lab equipment, some benches, microscopes to get rid of. I’m quitting. And they said, “What? Why don’t you just come and set up your lab here!”
It was a garage, basically, but it was a good, open space. I set the lab up in there.
I did some projects with them for a few months and then, all of a sudden, more grant money came in. Eric Oseas came on to take care of the business aspects.
E: The non-sciencey aspects….
G: Haha right. The non-sciencey aspects. And, that’s when we got Bri Oakley right out of University of Kentucky. Our first employee.
It was a nice time. We were there a few years, then we moved here to Kieley Place (BTG Labs’ current headquarters). A lot nicer space.
So, during that time, in addition to getting more SBIR grants for technology, we started to get a lot of R&D projects. We started to get a reputation and started to make more contacts; started to grow.
And then, when the Airforce put out a request for SBIR work to extend the results of the CAI program, we applied for it and got it.
E: So, what were they looking for?
G: Boeing and the Airforce said, “Gee, this CAI data looks great, but how can we use this when we’re developing an airplane? We need to translate this into something that is practical for manufacturing.
This is where my history started coming together. Because I started out working in the lab at Dow doing lab work, and then I moved to this small plastics compound in Kentucky were I really had to get my hands dirty, you know? Everyday you’re trying to get product out there, you’re trying to get product into boxes and onto trucks and you have to solve day-to-day mechanical and electrical problems.
So, I got experience in the production side of things and I got a lot more sensitivity to what it takes, what kind of instrument do you want to be able to hand somebody on the manufacturing floor.
These things all kind of came together.
The other things that came together in developing the Surface Analyst were the friendships I developed with people like Rand Embertson and Francis Ganance who are really hands on designers and engineers.
So, I could have a vague idea of what I wanted and these guys could actually make it and then I could go generate data with it.
The fact that I had this network is really what set us apart. Not just doing lab work but having sensitivity for the requirements of manufacturing environments and having connections with people that know how to do that stuff and know how to make things.
It was the perfect storm of friends, acquaintances, skills, and of course the need in the market place.
I’ve got to make it real clear, I didn’t invent this thing alone. But I think I’m a good facilitator. That’s a real important point, I didn’t invent this alone.
E: You were the common denominator though.
G: Yeah. I was the common denominator. I thought, here’s an opportunity over here, and over there are people that can take advantage of this opportunity.
E: When you first started BTG Labs, did you have an idea of what it would develop into? Or if you did, did it look like this?
G: Absolutely not. I was just trying to figure out how to do the work that I like to do. Solve problems, learn, read papers, write papers, that’s what I was looking for. It happened very organically, and opportunity arose.
E: How did it grow so suddenly in the last few years? From a 5- to a 20-person company?
G: I saw Tom McLean and how he worked, developing a technology company, I was able to meet him and get him interested so that in a couple of years, he was able to come on. His organization and business and sales ability is what’s making us explode right now. Bringing in real business people is what turned this from a lab with a few scientists and engineers to a real company.
E: Do you see any hurdles we have to jump? Other than parking situation, of course.
G: Yeah, the parking situation: that’s why we need to encourage employees to ride motorcycles and bicycles more! Big hurdles? I just think we’ve got work to do.
Do you see any?
E: No. I just think we need to keep doing what we’re doing and keep the community and communication strong.
Lastly, what are you most proud of?
G: The team we’ve brought together here. I’m only responsible for part of it. But, I’ve never seen a work place like this. It’s really cool. These people that are energetic and fun and we’re making really cool stuff. I’m really proud of that.
E: Well, cheers to that.
We clink our beer glasses; the end to another work week at BTG Labs.