PEMBROKE — NanoSonic has spent decades building a reputation and finding buyers for its line of high-tech materials, from fabrics that don’t catch on fire to coatings that resist ice formation.
But now it’s preparing to start from scratch again — this time overseas.
The 36-person company recently was accepted into the Virginia Leaders in Export Trade, or VALET, program. That means the Virginia Economic Development Partnership will help the company learn how to export products, market internationally and open up a new world of potential customers.
A lot of the company’s inventions have been for the defense industry, and NanoSonic CEO Rick Claus said he’s not interested in exporting those materials outside the country.
But other products represent a major opportunity for his small tech company. There are a lot of potential customers in the U.S., but far more around the world, he said.
Michelle Berg, NanoSonic’s trade and compliance officer, said a big part of the push is going to be for the company to learn about different business cultures.
For instance, in some countries it’s not always about having the lowest price, but rather the strongest relationship with buyers. That means speaking their language, getting the right product certifications and making an effort to be involved in the local market.
“It’s about understanding a lot of the things we do here domestically and the way we relate to people is very different internationally,” Berg said.
The VALET program runs for two years, and has 45 enrolled companies across the state right now. On average, participants have seen international sales increase by 54%, according to VEDP.
NanoSonic has dozens of projects in the works at its colorful, high-tech tech facility that sticks out against the scenic backdrop of rural Giles County. Some are fun, quirky experimental endeavors, while others are more mundane.
The latter are the ones that pay the bills — and will be the first to go overseas.
NanoSonic is first targeting the German market with foam seat cushions for a variety of transportation uses, including trains, planes and automobiles.
The cushions need to be comfortable, smoosh-resistant, long-lasting and slow to catch on fire.
The product has turned into a major focus for the company, though NanoSonic declined to provide specific sales data. Claus did say foam-related product sales have increased by more than 100% since October. The company has hired five new employees this summer, three of whom are working on foams.
Through the VALET program, the state is going to provide NanoSonic a detailed market analysis report that should help the company know where and how to now sell those products around the world.
The Giles County company also hopes to get help translating technical manuals, and access to tariff experts to turn to in times of need.
“There are people who know that,” Claus said. “We don’t. We make stuff.”
The Virginia Tech researcher-turned-company co-founder has a list of well-rehearsed analogies to explain what his company does. Nanoparticles are like sand on the beach or links in a charm bracelet or coffee beans in a grinder, he says.
The company is full of chefs in a test kitchen, another analogy goes, mixing ingredients, designing recipes and cooking up materials with different properties for different uses.
NanoSonic has a flame-resistant paint it hopes will someday coat ships. It has a rubber that conducts electricity like a metal. It has materials that are used in gloves for firefighters and others that could one day be incorporated into space suits for astronauts.
The company spun out of Virginia Tech in 1998. It bounced around for a while, renting space inside a Blacksburg home, then in an old doctor’s office, then in an old bar on South Main Street. The company finally announced the move into its own Giles County building in 2009, where it has been ever since.
Claus said the company has already completed architectural renderings for an expansion on its current lot, but first it needs another product to go gangbusters.
Asked how they’re going to have to change the business when they begin international sales, Claus laughed.
“We’re going to find out,” he said, “which is a good thing.”