Amit Kapoor applies integrated technology to meet the needs of first responders.
By Sigrid Tornquist
“I think the best ideas come when you’re sitting with clients away from a work environment, having a beer or lunch, and asking, ‘How’s everything going?’” says Amit Kapoor, president of First Line Technology in Chantilly, Va. “That’s when clients tell you their problems and ideas start ticking away for integrating technology and making a solution.”
In 2004, Kapoor graduated with a master’s degree in computer science, and knew one thing—he did not want to pursue work in computer science. He had also studied biochemical engineering in college, and decided to contact his freshman roommate Randy Sakowitz, whose background is in accounting, to see if he would be interested in starting a business in the field of homeland security and disaster response. “This was after 9/11 and there were a lot of companies starting up in that field, but they were developing really expensive products,” Kapoor says. “So we thought we would come up with more cost-effective chem/bio products for the market.”
Understanding the market
Kapoor and Sakowitz attended several defense-related trade shows—both in person and virtually—to begin understanding homeland security and disaster response needs and what was available to address them. “We would just walk around the show floor and visit with exhibitors and attendees to see what the buzz was,” Kapoor says. “We attended some of the luncheons to further develop relationships and understand the industry, and soon I realized we could develop products to meet some of their needs.”
Before First Line Technology would have the funds and customer base necessary to begin developing its own product line, the company focused on acting as a distributor for SWEDE—a company out of Sweden that produces personal protective equipment including gas masks and clothing. “For the first two years we had zero revenue; we were self-funded through our families,” Kapoor says. “We worked on building a customer base and talked with clients to see what kinds of products they might be interested in.”
One concern clients repeatedly voiced was that the heavy clothing used to protect first responders from biological and chemical agents was uncomfortably hot and heavy. “We had seen ice cooling vests in the past and had offered to sell those, but clients were looking for something different,” Kapoor says. “So we started looking for an alternative cooling compound to use in cooling vests.” Kapoor read industrial journals and papers, and attended trade shows, looking for a possible solution. Eventually he learned about a salt compound that absorbs heat, and the company trademarked it as PhaseCore®.
“We found the compound but then we had to figure out how to make a vest out of it,” Kapoor says. “Customers were telling us they wanted it manufactured from fabric made in the United States, so we turned to IFAI. At the Expo we found both the fabric and the partners who would sew the vests for us, since at that time we didn’t have manufacturing capabilities.” In 2006, First Line launched the cooling vests, which first responders wear under the heavy protective suits.
In 2009, Kapoor developed a working relationship with Texas Tech University to commercialize the product FiberTect®, developed by Dr. Seshadri Ramkumar, an associate professor of nonwoven technologies. The nonwoven cotton carbon absorbent wipes have the capacity to absorb liquids such as crude oil as well as some toxic vapors, and were used to aid in the 2010 oil spill clean-up effort in the Gulf of Mexico.
The challenge in commercializing this type of a product is to stay focused, Kapoor points out. “With a product like FiberTect there are a lot of potential uses, and we’re trying to focus on a handful of them so we don’t spread ourselves too thin,” he says. “I’ve seen a lot of companies partner with universities and lose focus—they jump from idea to idea for how to use a certain patent or technology. For example, during the big oil spill there was a lot of pressure to take the product to the oil industry, but we wanted to stay focused on the chem/bio side and not only respond to the need created by the oil spill. It was a disaster; it changed every day.”
While Kapoor is careful not to allow the changeable nature of disasters to derail the company’s focus, it is disaster-related needs that drive much of the company’s product development—and spending time with customers, talking with them about what works and what doesn’t work, starts the process. “Sometimes it’s as simple as asking a client: ‘What would be your magic product?’” Kapoor says. “And then Randy and I go back to our office and brainstorm solutions.”
A visit to New Orleans post-Katrina generated one such product idea for Kapoor and First Line. The company had been working with the American Red Cross and the National Guard to supply sleeping cots to the affected areas, and Kapoor and Sakowitz decided to see first-hand how the cots had been distributed and what other needs they might be able to address. They had delivered about 30,000 cots and discovered that many of them went to hospitals. “We wondered: Why weren’t the hospitals evacuated?” Kapoor recalls. “It turned out it was due to a lack of ambulances. So we asked ourselves: Why can’t we develop a product that can utilize vehicles they already have on the ground?”
The resulting product is AmbuBus, a kit that converts an existing passenger bus—such as a school bus or metro bus—into an ambulance bus capable of safely transporting 18 stretchers and IVs, along with six operators and their medical support equipment. “The majority of our business comes from repeat customers who like the products we initially fielded to them,” Kapoor says. “They don’t necessarily keep buying the same product; they often ask us to develop something new for them.
“Every day brings a new experience in this line of work—it’s gratifying to hear from your customers that your products have helped them, and to know you’ve made a difference.”