For product presentations, Phillip Roberts sometimes carries along a petri dish filled with black grit, just in case people don’t believe the story about his Long Beach condominium balcony and the catalyst for the creation of his small business.
The grit is a daily gift of air pollution that comes with his otherwise spectacular view of the Port of Long Beach, on the horizon just beyond the Queen Mary. Once Roberts realized that cleaning the sooty material from his balcony tabletop was going to be a daily task, the former asthma sufferer did two things:
“I bought hospital-grade air filters for every room in the condo,” Roberts said, “and I thought that maybe I ought to try to do something about it.”
Roberts is the founder and chief executive and Richard Carlson is the president of Extengine Transport Systems of Long Beach. It’s a five-employee business that is hoping to cash in by making older off-road and on-road diesel engines run a lot cleaner. Extengine develops and manufactures diesel retrofit emission-control systems -- a huge market since it is not uncommon for them to last 300,000 to 400,000 miles or longer.
“The good thing about diesel engines is that they last forever. That’s also the bad thing about them. A 1987 diesel engine is about 50 times dirtier than one made in 2007,” Roberts said. “We can reduce emissions by 90% to 95% on any on-road or off-road engine.”
Extengine’s timing could not have been better. It has developed its clean-air product line at a time when economic powerhouses such as seaports, construction companies and even warehouse and distribution centers are now viewed as testing grounds, business incubators and sources of venture capital.
Roberts found his clean-air calling despite an education that had little to do with cargo movement and the maritime industry. He started out hoping to become a diplomat, graduating from Georgetown University in 1979 with a degree in linguistics. His other degree was in French civilization, from the University of Paris.
“I tell people I’m not limited by my education,” Roberts said.
Now, Roberts’ company, which was formed in 2001, makes a variety of pollution-reduction devices. They mostly look like large mufflers or oversized catalytic converters that can either take the place of an original muffler or be placed alongside it.
One is the MaxTrap active diesel particulate filter, which is designed to reduce particulate emissions by up to 99% on older engines. One of them is running through trials on a bulldozer at the Puente Hills Landfill near Whittier for the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts.
MaxTrap sells for $13,000 to $15,000, which Roberts says is less than his competitors’ prices. But Roberts said its best feature is that it works “like a self-cleaning oven, with a sensor that detects soot buildup and activates a heater that burns it off while you’re still cooking.”
Another product is a patented advanced diesel-emission-control system that sells for $25,000 to $35,000 and which uses the same kind of catalytic reduction often found on stationary engines. This one also uses a sensor from a Carlsbad company called Emissions & Power Solutions that allows real-time emissions monitoring.
The Port of Los Angeles has given Extengine a $200,000 grant to help in product development, which is one way that Extengine is reducing its own costs.
Kristen Monaco, an economics professor at Cal State Long Beach who was hired by the university to study the trucking industry at the ports, said Extengine has the chance to tap into a huge market of ports nationwide and in the many diesel engines used in construction, agriculture and other industries.
“As clean-air initiatives spread from ports like Los Angeles and Long Beach, there will be many business opportunities in other parts of the country,” Monaco said. The products could extend the lives of older diesels at a time when tight credit makes buying expensive new trucks even more difficult, she added.
The inspiration came from stark reminders of the Los Angeles basin’s air pollution problems of the past and present.
Roberts, for example, moved into a high-rise in 1995, where two things left a lasting impression. One was the remarkable view of giant cargo cranes at the Port of Long Beach. The second was a layer of soot on his balcony’s glass tabletop.
“I remember thinking that it was just dirt,” said Roberts, a former asthma sufferer from Omaha who was appalled when he saw how much pollution was generated by the operation of hundreds of diesel engines operating at the nation’s busiest seaport complex.
Carlson’s experiences with air pollution go back much further, to his days growing up in Pasadena when first- and second-stage smog alerts were all too common.
“There were times when we couldn’t see the buildings across the street,” he said.
When Roberts began noticing the port pollution, he was working as a consultant, helping about half a dozen start-up businesses raise capital and market their emission technologies.
Eventually, balcony soot persuaded him to try to start his own business. Roberts talked to experts and engineers about prospective technologies. He attended Society of Automotive Engineers conferences in the U.S. and Europe, building relationships.
To commercialize new technology required a lot of expensive testing and data compiling. To short-circuit that process and reduce costs, he put together a business plan that included building his own fee-for-service testing lab in 2001, which was recognized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the California Air Resources Board and the International Organization for Standardization.
Building the lab took two years but worked admirably for his own business development.
“When we weren’t testing equipment for customers, we could test our own ideas,” Roberts said.
In the process, he began to impress a lot of people involved in technology and business start-ups in Southern California. One of them was William F. Lyte, a business development expert and a co-founder of Technoplex Group, a consulting firm in San Pedro.
“Roberts is an enormously committed guy. He’s so driven that he went through this whole process of building a research lab to test his products and wound up turning it into a very strong profit center,” Lyte said.
It was during the certification process for the Switzerland-based international standards organization that he met Carlson and eventually hired him. Roberts and Carlson sold the lab in 2007, with all of their own testing done and some profits in the bank. Carlson also serves as chief operating officer, managing technology installations.
Soon, Roberts said, Extengine would be moving out of its Long Beach office to a new installation and sales office and an operations center in conjunction with Cal State Long Beach and the Port of Los Angeles.
“We are hoping to get most of our employees from Cal State Long Beach,” he said.
Roberts now often thinks about what he might be doing if he had ignored that balcony soot. He turned down a high-salary job at Arco to build his company.
“I wouldn’t have taken advantage of this opportunity and this vision I had,” he said. “I’d . . . be working for Arco. But this business was my calling. It was something I had to do.”