Q&A profile with PNW Commercialization and Manufacturing Excellence Center (CMEC) Associate Director Mont Handley
Mont Handley seeks to advance commercialization opportunities as associate director of PNW’s Commercialization and Manufacturing Excellence Center. A successful entrepreneur, he developed the product, PITTMoss, for which he recently traveled to the White House to receive a Tibbets Award, which recognizes success in driving small business innovation, research and development. Read more about Handley in the Q&A profile that follows.
Q: What does it mean to you to receive the Tibbetts Award?
MH: Well, I’m actually quite surprised by the recognition, considering my SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) Phase 1 grant was awarded in 1996. Despite tremendously successful research results for PittMoss, I was not awarded a Phase 2 grant to assist in the commercialization of the product at that time.
Since I don’t have a rich uncle—at least I don’t think I do—I knew it would be up to me to build a “proof of Concept” manufacturing plant to prove to investors that my product could be made profitably. It took me 14-15 years to save up enough capital to build the facility, four months to build it, and within the first hour the process was proven viable. Investors took notice, and PittMoss became that very rare venture that attracts private capital. …Winning the Tibbetts is validation that my instincts about how to build a successful business or attract investors were right.
Q: Explain/describe the PittMoss product you created and how you came to do so?
MH: PittMoss is a soil-less growing medium that is free of Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss and is made from recycled paper and a proprietary mix of organic additives. It is superior to peat moss in every possible measure.
I’ve always had an interest in commercial horticulture and bought my first greenhouse at the age of 12. My first career out of college was managing the live goods operations of a regional nursery and I learned about the environmental degradation caused by harvesting peat moss from highly sensitive wetlands
I spent about three years experimenting at my kitchen counter with a food processor my mom handed down to me when I moved into my first apartment. Once I found a stable formula I applied for a patent and began applying for SBIR research funds. I won on my third effort.
Q: You pitched PITTMoss on the television program, Shark Tank. How did you benefit from the experience?
MH: PITTMoss and the related company I founded are based in Ambridge, Pa. I was already working to close a seed round of funding with a group of Pennsylvania-based Angel Investors when I received the call from Shark Tank. I felt there was no downside, so I agreed to be on the show.
It was a brutal, nearly two-hour pitch in front of the sharks, but I did get an offer from three of them. When everything was said and done, I had successfully raised $1.2 million to fund the new production plant for the business.
Q: Explain the 1 Million Cups weekly program you introduced at PNW to benefit entrepreneurs.
MH: 1 million Cups is an initiative of the Kauffmann Foundation on Entrepreneurism. The concept is that thousands of new businesses are created every single day in the United States over 1 million cups of coffee. There are more than 115 such programs nationally.
Our PNW program meets at 9 a.m., Wednesdays at CMEC. The programs feature scheduled presentations by entrepreneurs and also serve as a networking opportunity for those who attend. Admission is free.
Anyone wanting to present can go to our website and apply. There is a committee of people who then evaluate the applications and invite applicants to present. We are focused mostly on ideation or early stage entrepreneurs, but also existing companies and non-profits with novel or innovative ventures they are considering launching.
Q: What advice would you give prospective entrepreneurs who question whether they have a potentially marketable product?
MH: Don’t believe the myth that “if you build a better mouse trap, the world will beat a path to your door.” Kick starting an idea into reality is a pretty difficult undertaking. In many respects having the idea is the last easy thing you will do through the entire process. You should try to find the reason your product won’t work, all the while you are building it into something, because customers and investors will do the same thing. Finally, the only sure way to fail is to quit.