When he first entered the business of hazardous waste cleanup in 1992, Ruben Garcia could not find the tools he needed. There was no store where one could purchase pumps to suction spilled sewage or tools for the safe handling of toxic waste.
He had to buy other tools and twist and adapt them to suit the needs of his business, which is emergency hazardous waste cleanup. During almost two decades, Mr. Garcia and his company have learned a great deal about modifying existing technology for new uses. As a result, Advanced Cleanup Technologies Inc. (ACTI) has grown into one of the West Coast's largest environmental cleanup companies.
Mr. Garcia's experience is not unique. In fact, it mirrors that of many other Hispanic-led technically innovative enterprises. These entrepreneurs – who are now helping to lead the nation in new directions by meeting product challenges with innovation – combine extensive technical knowledge and experience with a sharp eye for identifying potential new market niches. They are bending tools and technology to suit their own purposes. To push these innovations even further, companies like Garcia's are gathering experts and engineers to design novel, and sometimes groundbreaking, products.
Here is a look at three such entrepreneurs who are innovating their way toward the top. They represent different market sectors, but their methods are similar. They are using and sometimes inventing new technology to drive their businesses.
ACTI's bread-and-butter is the everyday waste spill and quick cleanup. In emergencies on the order of Hurricane Katrina, the government calls on ACTI to employ all its skills and resources to assist in hazard removal. The firm, headquartered in Rancho Dominguez, California, has at its command approximately 350 full-time employees, more than 75 trucks, 30-plus water vessels, and even a jet.
But now ACTI has entered the arena of true innovation. Mr. Garcia has launched a series of new technologies to address the burgeoning green market. Perhaps his proudest accomplishment is the design and manufacture of a "sock on a stack," or an exhaust filtration device for both locomotives and ships.
Because Mr. Garcia assiduously tracks new environmental regulations to evaluate the impact on clients, he knows their needs and how ACTI can help customers stay in compliance. The "cloud chamber scrubber" originated after he recognized that there was "no technology available to capture and reduce emissions from non-stationary sources," such as rail and shipping. Mr. Garcia hired a team of engineers, who, over four years, culled technology from power plants, integrated it with equipment employed in glass manufacturing, and added their own innovations and specifications.
In tests this year at the Port of Long Beach, California, the million-dollar device demonstrated its capacity to remove about 96 percent of the "especially dangerous" particulate matter being emitted by ship exhausts. Long Beach has signed on to install two or three of the units, demonstrating its own brand of industry leadership. Mr. Garcia reports interested inquiries from ports across the country, as well as in Asia and Europe.
How To Grab The Customer
Far afield from hazardous waste remediation but following a similar pattern in striking out on new paths, innovating, and transforming an industry is the Web marketing company IronTraffic.
Vice President Eder Holguin cofounded the company in New York City five years ago. Originally from Columbia, Mr. Holguin previously worked in online advertising, designing marketing campaigns and techniques to drive traffic to his clients. The problem, however, for traditional advertising always has been how to measure customer response to campaigns.
IronTraffic and Mr. Holguin have taken advantage of the Web's interactive potential and built a more solid bridge from company to consumer. Using a variety of incentives and potential prizes like ipods, vacation getaways, or even cash, the firm induces consumers to participate in online surveys. The interactive survey, Mr. Holguin said, operates as a vast filtration system. It poses question after question until it identifies an interest the respondent has in purchasing a specific product, whether it is a diamond ring, a degree as dental technician, or a trip to Jamaica. This information is relayed immediately as a potential lead to a client company's call center.
To develop his product, formulate IronTraffic's business plan, and plot his innovations, Mr. Holguin drew on years of experience and an intense knowledge of the Internet. The company grabbed an interactive Web-based technology that was previous used by market researchers. Then, with the assistance of a slew of Israeli computer programmers, it was reconstructed to act as a sorting mechanism to generate sales leads.
IronTraffic's expanding client list, said Mr. Holguin, includes Hewlett-Packard, GEICO, MasterCard, and a host of smaller firms. Founded in 2002, its revenues grew from $0.8 million in 2004 to $4.2 million last year.
JM Fiber Optics, based in Chino, California, has been in the business of fiber optic communication cables for almost 20 years. But lately, CEO Kenneth Rivera has fashioned a suite of new products, all derived, but significantly departing, from his traditional expertise in cable technology. These innovations in communication and transportation are designed to capture "new niche markets and enhance the safety and reliability of existing technological solutions."
Last year, Los Angeles County Mass Transit Authority contracted with Mr. Rivera to replace the subway and rail system's outdated public information system. JM Fiber Optics designed and installed a state-of-the-art communication network known as TransitVUE. The network employs newly developed computer software and 350 large-screen monitors throughout the 62 Metro stations, all connected to a command communication center via fiber optics cables. The system permits the immediate transmission of emergency instructions, along with more routine passenger information.
The next JM Fiber Optic innovation off the production line was FibrMat, which is an intrusion detection and warning system for commuter rail and subway systems. Using a combination of fiber optic and infrared technology, FibrMat detects any tampering or suspicious activity near train and subway tracks. The LA Transit Authority has scheduled installation for this month.
At JM Fiber Optics, as with IronTraffic and ACTI, a sophisticated understanding of the market and its emerging niches drives the hunt for technologically innovative products. Mr. Rivera explained, "You have to stay in tune with the needs of the end-user, service providers, and consultants and with technology trends in the industry." An innovator, he said, uses that information, along with extensive technical knowledge built up through years of experience, to create new products or improve existing ones. As more Hispanic entrepreneurs grasp the vast potential of this type of innovation and its adaptability, they will continue to emerge as a driving new force in the American economy.
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