Cementing change

CeraTech hopes its quick-drying product will take hold in the industry

May 25, 2007|By Allison Connolly | Allison Connolly,Sun reporter

The last time Jon Hyman led a company, he helped turn the golf industry on its head, introducing plastic cleats to replace metal spikes. Now, he's planning a revolution for a similarly staid business: concrete.

"This is not a very exciting industry, but we've been able to do things differently," said Hyman, who is chief executive officer of Baltimore-based CeraTech Inc.

CeraTech has a technology that seeks to replace the way that cement has been made for nearly 200 years, since English inventor Joseph Aspdin mixed chalk and clay and heated it in a kiln to produce what is now widely known as Portland cement.

Unlike Portland cement, which must be kept wet and continuously rotated in mixers until it is poured and then allowed to dry for hours, CeraTech customers need only mix the company's proprietary cement powder with water in a bucket, then pour.

Within minutes, the mixture is hard - and hot, because of the chemical reaction when the ingredients are mixed. "You can put this down and drive on it within an hour," Hyman said.

The company's Pavemend line of repair products can be applied to a 35-degree slope as well as steel. Another product, Surfix, for floor resurfacing, was recently used to create a polished floor at an Anheuser-Busch metal can facility in Jacksonville, Fla.

CeraTech products are "green," meaning they are made of industrial waste streams - fly ash - and recyclable materials. The company is testing products that don't dry as quickly for larger construction projects, to compete with established brands such as BASF.

In the back of a white brick building that also houses offices for the state's health department on Brehms Lane in Northeast Baltimore, CeraTech's staff of 27 tests batches of product in freezers and heated tents, surrounded by white buckets of material.

A Pennsylvania contractor manufactures the final products.

CeraTech moved to Baltimore from Northern Virginia in 2001 as part of a deal with the Abell Foundation, which invests in companies it believes make positive contributions to the city.

The Abell Foundation owns about a 20 percent stake in the company, which is in the midst of raising more money, said Abell Treasurer Eileen O'Rourke.

The foundation is selective about the companies it invests in, said foundation president Robert C. Embry, Jr. But this one stood out.

`New form of concrete'

"We think it offers a new form of concrete that's unique to the industry and has great prospects for the future," he said

Hyman said CeraTech products are approved for use by nearly two dozen state transportation departments. But the company's biggest customer currently is the Department of Defense. Hyman said the Army has used its products to repair runways and roadways in Iraq ripped up by improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. He said combat engineers can fill the holes quickly, and do not have to stand guard for hours afterward, worried that insurgents will drop another IED into the wet cement. And, it can be poured in a wide range of temperatures, from 120 degrees F. to below freezing.

"It wasn't the intention, but the product offered flexibility and versatility they didn't have," he said.

Invented by Virginian

The technology was invented by the late Larry Francis, a Virginia Department of Transportation worker who studied why construction materials fail. CeraTech holds the patent for his formula. The company also has applied for a patent on a technology for new construction products invented by CeraTech senior research engineer Glenn Schumacher, which could open up the company to a much bigger market.

Hyman was brought in to commercialize CeraTech products based his past startup experience.

The West Point graduate left a 23-year career with the Army - which included a stint at the Pentagon working for then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Colin Powell - in 1993 for the corporate world, serving in executive roles with the Canadian Football League and Walt Disney Co.

In 1995, Hyman was asked to lead Softspikes Inc., a Gaithersburg company formed to commercialize the first plastic golf cleats invented by two men from Boise, Idaho. Until then, the golf world had only known metal spikes, the scourge of fairways, putting greens and club floors everywhere.

Within a few years, plastic cleats were the norm and metal spikes were banned at most clubs and courses. After Softspikes was bought by private equity firm Bessemer Holdings of New York in 2003, Hyman joined CeraTech as chief operating officer, becoming CEO the next year.

Hyman said he was attracted to CeraTech for the same reason he joined Softspikes: because it challenged the norm.

He said he wants to expand CeraTech's market appeal beyond repair to new, nonresidential construction, a $560 billion-a-year market according to the last U.S. Census survey in 2006.

Rivals discount the competitive threat.

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