If it seems odd to find one of the world's leading companies in the desalination industry located in Edina, Minn. -- half a continent in any direction from the salty brine -- it is probably because most people assume that desalination technology is only good for removing salt from seawater. They are wrong, says Robert Petersen, vice-president of science and technology for Film Tec Corp. "You'll find our products anywhere that impure water means dollars down the drain. Dairy and sugar-beet processing operations use them, as do chemical companies and semiconductor plants. They're also used to remove unwanted minerals and chemicals from household tap water."
What is unusual about Film Tec are its technology and marketing techniques. Thanks to a novel process of reverse osmosis -- and to a marketing strategy based on academic excellence -- the company has grown over the past five years from 24 employees to 139, and from $118,000 in sales to $9.3 million, a 7,753% increase.
At the core of FilmTec's technology is the FT-30, a semipermeable, filmlike water-purification membrane. Wound into elements shaped like rolling pins, the membrane is the key component in a reverse-osmosis desalination system. Ordinary osmosis, as high-school science students learn, is the process by which, for example, fresh water diffuses through a membrane to dilute salt water. Reverse osmosis is the same thing, only backwards. If the salt water is pressurized, the liquid is driven back through the membrane, leaving the salt and other dissolved solids behind. "There's no heat involved, so it's a more economical, fuel-efficient method of desalination than the old distillation system," Petersen explains.
In 1977, the four scientists who had developed the technology while working on government research grants set up FilmTec to manufacture and sell their new technology. FilmTec's first market was the pleasure-boat industry, where on-board desalination systems are often standard equipment. Most of the reverse-osmosis elements the company sold were 14 to 21 inches long, and could treat no more than a mere 600 gallons per day. Today, thanks to continuing research, FilmTec is able to supply largescale water-purification systems here and abroad, some of which process 5 million gallons per day. Despite an industry-wide sales slowdown caused by recession in many parts of the world (particularly in such water-short areas as the Middle East), demand for FilmTec's membrane is expected to increase the company's sales by 30% to 50% annually for the next few years.
The academic background of the four founders has played a central role in the company's growth. "We continued to do government research to bring in income in the first years," president Eugene Erickson says, and their first private-sector sales came from contacts the four had developed as researchers at a nonprofit institute. Moreover, their research credentials are still their best advertising. "We build our credibility primarily through the scientific papers we publish," explains vicepresident Petersen."It's a little unusual, but it works for us. That's the kind of marketing we understand."