From the Clean Energy Business Network: Faces Behind the Facts
Faces Behind the Facts tells the stories of clean energy business leaders behind these transformations.
From the largest energy corporations in the world to the smallest family-owned businesses, these American entrepreneurs are developing cleaner, more reliable, more affordable energy solutions to power the U.S. economy. Their innovations are spurring new industries, manufacturing opportunities, and job growth in communities across the nation.
Beat Steel, Grow a Business
ERIK KIILUNEN, CEO
While his business success hasn’t come easy, Erik Kiilunen has gotten by on grit and ingenuity.
His business experience started early in life, and he credits his family with helping him develop the necessary skills to build a business of his own. Kiilunen grew up in a family of entrepreneurs, and regularly worked alongside his parents and grandparents at their businesses. “I learned to repair shoes, and sold my first pair of skis at age twelve,” Erik says.
Kiilunen later spent years working with his grandfather to learn production and distribution of welding electrodes and fluxcode wires, selling and using these products to repair tooling for industry. Those experiences proved to be invaluable as he went on to manufacture his own products and build his own companies. His entrepreneurial experience spans more than thirty years and includes four acquisitions, five start-ups and one exit.
Over the course of his career Erik recognized an opportunity in the energy sector and chose to pursue it; he observed that reducing energy use is a surefire path to reducing costs for a business. “When looking at any business, manufacturing in particular, energy is often a core cost driver. On a very basic level, working to reduce the energy inputs in a given process is one way to reduce costs. Focusing on energy efficiency can be one of the most effective paths to cost reduction.”
His background in business, combined with the understanding of the value of process efficiency, provided the catalyst for Erik to help found a company that would provide a lower cost, direct replacement for steel rebar. Erik’s journey did not come without bumps in the road. Kiilunen turned a failed injection-molding business into an extrusion reselling business, EcoStud. While developing a new product for EcoStud, Kiilunen conceived the process that is now known as the Neuvokas process. Needless to say, he knows the power of persistence.
Kiilunen founded Neuvokas in 2013 with Ken Keranen in the Keweenaw, located on the tip of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The firm’s product leverages a patented technological advance it developed to produce Fiber Reinforced Polymer (FRP) rebar at a lower cost than its steel counterparts. Neuvokas produces its highperformance FRP rebar product under the trade name, GatorBar®. GatorBar is produced using a high speed, energy efficient manufacturing process. With a service life of more than 2 times that of traditional steel, GatorBar extends the life of the concrete it reinforces while producing fewer CO2 emissions. In short, this innovative product is stronger than its competitors but lighter on the environment.
Currently Erik’s firm can produce its product 23 times faster than his FRP competitors. In October 2019, with a new line that can produce GatorBar at 250 ft/min, Neuvokas will increase it advantage to 38 times faster than its competitors. Additionally, Neuvokas will increase it product offering to include new sizes.
The company currently has twenty-five employees, but plans on adding significantly more to the team over the next two to three years. The success that Neuvokas has seen, however, is credited to the community around it that has provided knowledge and guidance for the best ways to move forward.
To augment the $6.3 million in private capital raised, Neuvokas has also received critical support in its early stages from various federal and state sources. The firm won Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) awards through the National Science Foundation totaling $1.8 million. In July 2018 the company was awarded a $2 million grant by the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) to develop its CBF production. Critical programs like these helped Neuvokas advance its technology and leverage private-sector investment.
The State of Michigan has noticed the promise of this company as well, providing $195,000 in grants through programs including the Business Accelerator Fund, Emerging Technologies Fund and a University of Michigan program focused on economic development, industry support, advanced manufacturing, and jobs forecasting.
Erik’s experience in family-owned businesses has taught him the value of faith, family and community.
"I can't take all the credit for our success. I'm blessed to have a strong team behind me that includes my wife and family, our employees, outstanding investor partners, and numerous supporters from groups like the Small Business Development Center, Cleantech Open, and NextEnergy."
Neuvokas is now working to leverage its patented process to produce GatorBar and extend the life of concrete infrastructure for companies and municipalities around the world.
“Through creating a vertically integrated business model, Neuvokas is poised to disrupt a massive industry and change the world for the better.”
Erik’s story is a reminder that often times the most valuable trait for a business leader is determination stronger than steel.