The right time to launch with Matt Villarreal

Guest: 

Matt Villarreal, Founder, and CEO of Infinite Composites, a startup focused on developing composite pressure vessels and structures, joins our Podcast host Elisa Muñoz and shares his experience and best tips on how to build up a successful company from scratch.

We love fun facts, here’s one: He is not an Engineer, but that didn’t stop him from  developing  a whole company in the industry! Since he was little, Matt was passionate about technology and aerospace, but never really got into it until he started building Infinite Composites.

He graduated from Business School at Oklahoma State University back in 2010 with a Business Degree in Entrepreneurship and Emerging Enterprises and continued developing his financial skills for a couple of years with different companies while doing an Internship at AG Power Industries, to jump later on with SURGE Ventures gaining more experience.

He spent the next 12 years being Chief Executive Officer at CleanNG, an innovator of advanced fuel storage products for natural gas vehicles. After that, he decided that it was time to start a business for himself so he joined one of his best friends and together, developed a company that was heading in a similar direction: Gas.

ICT launched its first technology, the iCPV (infinite Composite Pressure Vessel) in 2013, offering the compressed natural gas (CNG) industry the first liner-less, all-composite storage vessel, offering its first customer a 15 percent increase in fuel storage, and 90 percent weight savings for a mobile natural gas refueling station.

The Company has since broadened its offerings and technologies to aerospace and industrial gas solutions providing customers the continuous benefits of weight savings and increased capacity.

Matt is currently focused on product development, continuous innovation, and business strategy. During this episode, we will dive deeper into his professional background experience, and some helpful tips & strategies on how to develop a business!

Transcript: 

Elisa- Matt. Thank you so much for being here and joining us this morning. Before we start with this interview, why don't we let our main guests introduce himself? 

Matt - Yeah, thanks for having me. I'm Matt Villarreal,  founder and CEO of Infinite Composites and we have designed a development manufacturer about ultra lightweight gas tanks, basically for space aviation and transportation applications.

Elisa - Do you mind giving us a quick introduction about what Infinite Composites does and how did it start?

Matt - Sure. Yeah, the value proposition of our product to the customers is we're lighter weight and lower cost, and we can deliver faster 

We're able to do that because we replaced heavy metallic structures in these tanks with an ultra lightweight all carbon fiber design. So in some cases we can save like 90% of masks, like against traditional metal tanks and versus your state-of-the-art tanks. We can save about 40% mass, which is very important in anything that flies in space or even, you know, passenger aircraft, stuff like that. All that weight can, can cost a lot of money. We kind of discovered this opportunity while my co-founder and I were in college at Oklahoma State University, we decided to join a college racing team called formula SAE. They had to design, build and manufacture a quarter scale formula, one car every year from scratch. The team had to raise all the money and recruit all the team members basically, do all the work themselves. 

And our team had kind of dwindled down to about two engineers. They had no money and I hadn't been to a competition in about four years. So we joined the team to kick start it again. And the way we did that was converting our cars to run on alternative fuels. So the first year we did an ethanol powered race car, which wasn't ready. We didn't do anything special other than poor this new fuel and our existing race car. It failed. But the second year we we're, we focused on going bigger and wanted to do something more.

So we did a compressed natural gas powered race car. This was the first of its kind ever created in the world that we know of. And we put it through a 24 hour endurance test where we drove the car 590 continuous miles setting, setting, some world records there. And then we set world records again the next year. But while we were driving it to a big house, compressed natural gas powered vehicles had to use high pressure tanks on them. Our tank was super heavy, it was all metal. It was about 10% of the weight of the vehicle. So it was not holding enough fuel. We have to refuel over and over again.

So we're like, “Man, we need to find another solution for this” and started doing some research, found out that there was this technology called liner loss, composite pressure vessels, also known as the type five. And it was the holy grail of gas storage, coordinated composites world magazine. And it could revolutionize space exploration and sustainable transportation. So basically I thought this was really cool and came up with a concept for, for creating a line, this composite pressure vessel ourselves, and put the 500 bucks each into a company and just started, started doing it, applying for research funding, doing business plan competitions, developing, you know, business plans and stuff like that through my coursework.

And eventually we just kinda got it. Got it rolling. Just kind of decided it and, and went forward.

Elisa -  You're saying that these happened like two years ago. 

Matt - Yeah. So this was in 2010 when we originally started the company. My co-founder and I, neither of us are engineers. We just basically had to learn, learn along the way. We were very lucky to get connected with an alum of our university who was a world renowned expert on composite pressure vessels and spent 25 years with NASA. And he actually taught, you know, a lot of your notable space companies like SpaceX blue origin and Firefly, how to make a previous generation composite of tanks, but he let us into his facility and mentored us through the initial startup and technology development. And we were, we were able to get it to work. 

Elisa - I noticed that you went to business school, right? But I mean, learning all of the technical stuff and technical facts, besides having the knowledge from the actual college, was it really difficult for you? Or you were like, “Hmm, this is something that naturally came out to me”? 

Matt -Yeah. I mean, I, a lot of it was pretty natural. I've always had an insatiable curiosity for a new thing to figure out how things work, you know, making things that didn't exist before. So I pretty much saw the opportunity and was like, “This is something that's incredibly challenging. It could take 10 years easily to get this technology off the floor. It's gonna keep my interest and it could have a huge impact  on the world”. And so I, you know, I made a conscious decision to pursue this. 

Elisa- Besides the weight, what would you say the main difference is from the actual tank that you guys have now?

Matt - The main difference is we don't have any metal metal structure inside the tank. So that's the metal liner, which is basically what holds the gas in. These kind of two different components, the metal liner is intended to keep the gas from permeating out. And then we'll wrap that with carbon fiber on top to give it strength, to hold the high pressures. So we basically combine those two functionalities into one structure made of the ultra lightweight carbon fiber. So we just basically eliminated that. 

Elisa - How has been the experience of pushing or trying to push nontraditional products?

Matt - Not many investors understand how these businesses work and, and then also,you can't just necessarily like to make a mock-up. People want to know how this thing's been tested and you have to blow things up and you have to break things to actually get the data you need to, to give customers confidence. So it's been challenging.  We've done a test with our tank on top of a 60 inch long bonfire while it's pressurized to, with natural gas to 4,000 PSI and, and with intentional explosion happening.

So we get to do a lot of fun stuff like that, but you know, when things don't go right, it's pretty bad.

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Elisa - And you started the company 2010, right? So it was basically like two years of developing for the R-D phase, or where do you say the company stands right now?

Matt - We spent like the first two and a half to three years basically developing the technology, getting it to work, and delivering our first order. When we started the company, we were primarily focused on natural gas applications, but around the time when we delivered that first product in 2013, we saw a flood of, of new entrance into the market from Asian countries who were able to provide products and in natural gas at very, very low kind of economics that we weren't able to compete with.

And at that same time, we had a space X reach out to us and NASA Marshall space flight center, and just start getting more and more inquiries and to companies who wanted our tanks for space applications.

And we always knew there was an application there, or that that was a good end use market, but we thought we would have to penetrate it rather than getting pulled into it. And so once we realized how the economics and stuff worked: It made sense to switch gears and, and stop focusing on natural gas and  focus more on space and aviation and some of these higher end products. 

But, you know, one of the things that's also been a huge challenge with this is actually having to build a manufacturing plant. So getting those first tanks to function and being able to deliver those to customers, it was a huge, a huge milestone,

Elisa - Do you remember if there was any specific time where you said “Okay, we're ready to llaunch now”?

Matt -For us it was more driven by timeline, delivery, and stuff like that. It was like, our first customer knew the product wasn't ready. Like they went into the contract saying, “You know, we haven't gotten these things to work yet. We are willing to work, day and night to make it happen, but we haven't proven the concept yet” And they were still willing to kind of go forward with it. So it's mostly driven by customer timelines versus us just saying, “We're ready to launch”.

Elisa - You have to adapt to the customer's necessities… And you're talking about a proof of concept. You mentioned the manufacturing plan. What was the main challenge in order to build a manufacturing plan? 

Matt - Well first getting the capital to build a manufacturing plan as a startup company not like a major balance sheet, you know, we're two young guys with not a huge amount of credit or anything like that. That was a, that was very challenging. And then, once you're able to buy all the equipment and get into a facility and stuff like that, it's really challenging to get your processes and everything under control. 

Our technology is a little bit of physics, a little bit of chemistry, a little bit of automation, there's a lot of different aspects to it. And being able to control all those things while I'm also not having the, the founders and the guys who know it all actually doing all the work out there is, is, is definitely a major challenge.

And so we've had to build up a lot of detailed documentation on how, how the processes work and how, you know, people are supposed to execute. So that's been very challenging.

Elisa - How are you handling the commercial side? I know that you recently joined the board, do you feel like your responsibilities, like your day-to-day dues have changed? How is that structured?

Matt - That was our first, equity investment, which formed the board. I wouldn't say my day to day job has changed too much from joining the board because I'm still operating the company. You know,yes there are things that you have to be more aware of when you have a board or voting requirements, you know? Like agreeing to something that you have to get approval for.

Elisa - Where do you see the company five years from now on and what will be the main strategy? 

Matt - I think the main strategy will be expanding into more of the global market. We have customers in Europe right now, some small customers, but the majority are in the US. And so I think there's a big demand for that. And so I see us having at least a sales office in Europe, but likely a manufacturing plant in there and having at least two more locations here in the US to support customers on the west coast. There's a lot of activity going on for both space and alternative fuel transportation. So we're, we're looking to scale up big and we think there's a possibility of an IPO at some point in the future over the next three to five years.

Elisa - Before we end this call, do you have any advice you could give to CEOs, founders, engineers who are listening to this podcast?

Matt- I would say for aspiring entrepreneurs, the main thing is just, just do it. Just decide you want to do it and start making it happen. Don't wait for the right time. Right time is now.  My advice is that,new founders and even existing founders, focus on making products that have a positive impact on the world. There's plenty of things out there that can make a lot of money and bring a lot of fame and success, but we need more people building technologies that can solve big problems right now. 

Elisa - Thank you so much for sharing with us. This was amazing, Matt. Thank you so much for taking the time. 

Mat t- Thanks for having me.

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