Houston coffee startup pivots to hand sanitizing product amid pandemic

Constantine Zotos (left) and Mitchell Webber pivoted their coffee business toward hand sanitizer manufacturing amid the pandemic. Today, the company has around 60 employees and produces 15,000 gallons of hand sanitizer per day. Photo courtesy of Modern Chemical

Houstonians' workday routines look much different today than they did seven months ago. With a large percentage of people working from home, office rituals have come to a halt and few habits have been immune to change — including our coffee consumption.

In early March, Constantine Zotos and Mitchell Webber already knew this didn't mean good things for their local nitro coffee company, Recharge Brewing Co. Though the brand had grown steadily over the better course of two years, the duo had focused their business on installing and supplying their nitro coffee taps to two of the most taboo markets at the time: office spaces and restaurants.The duo aptly predicted that the demand for their product would soon dry up and quickly shifted their operations to focus on a product that was considered a necessity: hand sanitizer.

To get started, the young entrepreneurs and their small team of six began cold calling down a list of Purell distributors they found online. They soon found that many businesses could hardly keep the product in stock.

"They asked us if they could fly a jet down to pick up the hand sanitizer themselves," Zottos says of one distributor. "I told them not to get ahead of themselves, but it just speaks to the sense of urgency everyone had."

The team studied up on the basic ingredients of hand sanitizer to make the liquid, alcohol-based form that infiltrated the market in the first few weeks of the pandemic. At the time there was such a rush for the product, and such a low supply of the material needed to make it, that the team resorted to selling the product without traditional pump tops or plastic caps. Instead they used the slow release plastic pourers that are often used on liquor bottles.

Still, they were focused on doing it right. In addition to the long hours spend to get the product out the door, Zotos and Webber took special care to ensure that their sanitizer met all FDA and EPA requirements by working with consultants and lawyers, as well as reading up on all the pertinent documents and literature between sleeping shifts and time on the shop floor.

"We took the stance that we would rather rush toward compliance rather than run from it," Zotos says.

It didn't seem to slow down the demand. One week in they formed Modern Chemical, and by the middle of the month the company was fulfilling substantial orders with a team of 40 employees. By the summer, Modern Chemical released a gel-based, FDA-registered sanitizer that got them in with giant B2B clients, such as the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority, Jefferson Parish School District, and recently the City of Austin.

The pair agrees that their background with Recharge gave them a leg up in the beginning.

"Knowing the pumps and hoses and all the stuff you really need to run a bottle facility and a hand sanitizer facility, we already had," Webber says. "On top of that when all this started, there were some long days and long nights, but being in the nitro coffee business, we were used to long hours. It prepared us for this huge push for the drastic demand that needed to be filled."

Location and timing also played a huge role in their success, Zotos adds. "When the pandemic struck we were able to bring on a lot of people who are extraordinarily talented throughout the company. If we weren't hiring in the pandemic environment like this I think we would be hard pressed to find people as talented as we did as quickly as we did," he says. "And Houston really played a big part in that."

Today, the company of about 60 employees is producing about 15,000 gallons of hand sanitizer per day and is in the process of launching disinfectant wipes and spray. They recently moved all of the Modern Chemical operations into a new and improved facility off Air Tec and Interstate 45 that will allow for more efficient packaging and loading of products and — in another pivot — are even offering custom labeling, scenting and color dyes, plus specialty dispensing stands for their product.

"Neither of us have a chemical background and we are not ignorant to that. But we know how the equipment works from an operational side of things and if we can make the packaging look the best. If we can package the most for the best price then people are going to want to buy it," Zotos says. "Instead of taking the let's do everything route, we found our niche in the chemical supply chain, which is packaging."

And as Modern Chemical continues to settle into its new space and eventually a post-pandemic market, Zotos and Webber plan to revisit and revamp Recharge Brewing with the lessons they've learned. The duo plans to use their original facilities to help other small business owners launch and produce beverage brands of their own by early 2021.

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Building Houston

 
 

These fast-growing companies have new personnel announcements to share. Photos courtesy

Three Houston startups have new hires they're excited about.

From new board members to c-level execs, here's who's moving and shaking in Houston innovation.

GoExpedi names senior vice president of sales

Michael Hanes will focus on sales at fast-growing GoExpedi. Photo courtesy of GoExpedi

E-commerce and supply chain company, GoExpedi, which is focused on transforming procurement for industrial and energy maintenance, repair and operations, has announced named a new executive.

Michael Hanes has been onboarded as senior vice president of sales. Hanes has over 20 years of experience in startups and emerging technologies. Most recently, Hanes worked at Heart Rhythm Society as its director of corporate relations.

"There are very few leaders that have the same level of sales experience and the diverse industry background as Michael. He is an outstanding addition to our team, as he's already started to build fruitful relationships with customers and partners, who are embracing change through the adoption of our interactive intelligence platforms," says Tim Neal, GoExpedi CEO, in a news release.

"Michael has also begun establishing a strong rapport with all of our sales leaders across the country, helping to further sharpen our processes and accelerate the growth of our already robust sales pipeline," Neal continues. "He will be instrumental for the expansion of our customer base and overall success."

Last fall, GoExpedi raised $25 million in a series C investment round in order to keep up with growth and demand.

"I am thrilled to join GoExpedi. What Tim and his team have built in just a few short years is nothing short of remarkable," says Hanes in the release. "Driving the sale of a truly innovative technology -- with the support of a deeply talented team of sales professionals -- is an amazing position to be in.

"I look forward to introducing fresh perspectives and bringing energy to further enhance our sales processes and market presence and accelerate the company's already fast-paced growth trajectory."

The Postage announces new board of directors member

Former startup CFO and venture capital adviser is joining a Houston tech company's board. Photo via liveoakvp.com

Lynn Atchison has joined the board of directors for Houston tech company The Postage, a full-service digital platform and mobile app for afterlife planning.

Based in Austin, Atchison most recently served as CFO at Khoros (née Spredfast) and also previously worked at HomeAway Inc. as CFO as well. She currently serves on other tech boards, such as Absolute Software, Bumble, Q2 Technologies and Convey, as well as being an advisory partner at LiveOak Venture Partners.

"As evidenced by her impressive experience, Lynn thrives when working with transformational and fast-growing companies, making The Postage a perfect fit," says Emily Cisek, CEO and co-founder of The Postage. "She has scaled operations, driven growth and improved profitability for companies in all lifecycle stages. We are absolutely thrilled to welcome Lynn to The Postage team."

The Postage launched last fall as a way to help simplify afterlife planning. Cisek was inspired to create her tech solution after she lost three family members back to back. This month, the company announced its new app.

During her time at HomeAway, Atchison oversaw more than 20 acquisitions and global expansions before the company went public in 2011 before being acquired by Expedia in 2015 for $3.9 billion.

"Throughout my career, I've worked with companies that redefined and established markets, ultimately becoming leaders in their respective industries, which is what I hope to do at The Postage," said Atchison. "Addressing the challenges associated with end-of-life planning is an exciting opportunity that I can personally relate to. I recently experienced a loss in my family, and I know there is something special about this idea. The Postage creates security of all users by ensuring that their families are taken care of after they pass."

Innowatts appoints new c-level exec

Energy software expert Jeff Wright has joined the globally expanding Innowatts. Photo courtesy of Innowatts

As Houston-based Innowatts continues its global expansion — most recently opening its European Union headquarters in Cork, Ireland, the energy software-as-a-service company has named a new member to its C suite.

Jeff Wright has been named the chief revenue officer of Innowatts. to drive continued expansion in the U.S. and also accelerate its growth globally. Wright was previously the global vice president of GE Digital's Grid Solutions business unit. During his tenure, GE's market position climbed from the No. 5 to No. 1 for its energy control room related software, according to a news release.

"Jeff's career can be summarized as 'Energy Meets Technology,'" says Innowatts CEO Siddhartha Sachdeva in the release. "As Innowatts business and global reach expands, we are grateful to have Jeff joining the company. He is a true energy tech leader who has second-to-none domain expertise across a diverse set of utility functions and operating units."

Wright will lead all aspects of the company's go-to-market initiatives and oversee global sales efforts and marketing channels.

"My passion to help companies disrupt and transform the utility industry aligns squarely with Innowatts' mission," says Wright in the release. "Innowatts is transforming the way energy providers will leverage data and AI to operate. Playing a pivotal role in the growth of the company coupled with driving the resilient and sustainable energy solutions of the future is a career opportunity that I am excited and passionate about. I'm truly delighted to be part of the Innowatts leadership team."

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