Editor's Note: This article is part of a series that celebrates the Inc. 500 founders for whom good enough isn't good enough, the ones who blast past what everyone else thinks are boundaries.
At Redmond, Oregon-based BasX Solutions, one of the toughest engineering challenges is building clean rooms--sealed spaces, complete with airlocks, that are free of dust and other contaminants that could damage products being made for the semiconductor, health care, and pharmaceutical industries. BasX builds airtight modular rooms and high-powered filtering systems at its 120,000-square-foot factory. The smallest specification is also the most important--0.12 micron, the size of the tiniest particle a room can filter out of the atmosphere. "We build a lot for the semiconductor industry ... And we once designed a suite that could contain the Ebola virus," says co-founder Matthew Tobolski. With most designs, he adds, it's about regulating airflow, pressure, and filtration. Here, Tobolski, who co-founded BasX with Dave Benson in 2012, explains how his company got adept at working under extreme conditions, all in the name of pleasing its customers. --As told to Etelka Lehoczky
I'm a structural engineer by training. I was doing some consulting work with Dave's previous company, looking at how well its equipment could operate after an earthquake. Dave had started his own business, only to see it get bought by a large corporation that put flexibility and creativity to the wayside. We were talking about how the corporate world was less about the customer than financial statements. He'd considered retiring, but I said, "You're still young. Let's start something new."
We started working with data center customers, making their HVAC systems more efficient. Data centers generate heat with their servers 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That can be a huge cost. Then we got into building whole rooms, everything from clean rooms for the semiconductor industry to isolation rooms for hospitals. The smallest-size particle we can filter out is 0.12 micron. It comes down to regulating airflow. The entire ceiling grid is an air-delivery system. You blow clean air from ceiling to floor and directly out of the room, so any particles are picked up. The key is to avoid turbulence, so particles don't get blown around and sit in the room.
There aren't many companies with in-house structural engineers, like we have. Our competitors outsource their engineering. We're able to create things our competitors won't. Everything we build is custom; we don't have a product catalog. What we have are in-house mechanical, electrical, structural, and control engineers to create whatever our customer asks for. It requires a lot of back-and-forth with each customer.
When the U.S. Ebola outbreaks were happening, we got an inquiry from a hospital to design an isolation system. Designing something for them was a lot like designing for the semiconductor industry, where a very, very small particulate can ruin an entire batch of chips. We never actually built an Ebola suite, but it was a unique problem to take on --certainly intriguing for our staff. It was a good reminder that anything that can be dreamed can be designed.