Houston Materials Startup Aidant Navigates the Energy Downturn
Houston—It’s probably not a good sign when you’re leading an energy startup and one of your customers asks you for a job.
“He was telling us, ‘I can’t buy anything. This is my wife sitting next to me and I have to lay her off tomorrow,’ ” says Lauren Thompson Miller, CEO and co-founder of Aidant Brands, which makes lubricants and coatings designed to remove and resist rust and corrosion. “Then, he started asking my sales rep about positions with us.”
Miller says that conversation took place about a year ago as oil prices continued their downward slide to prices not seen in about a decade. It drove home the reality that her company, originally founded in 2013 as A-76 Technologies to target the oil and gas industry, would need to find other markets.
“As that was happening, another customer kept wanting samples because they were taking them home and using them on grills, car boats, motorcycles,” she says. “We realized more and more that household users would be a great alternative.”
A year later, Miller says sales to consumers account for nearly 40 percent of the startup’s business. Aidant first sold Rust Patrol on Amazon and in local family-owned hardware stores where they could personally demo their product. Now, the company is pursuing shelf space in big box stores like Home Depot.
I first spoke to Miller more than two years ago as A-76 Technologies (as it was called then) was preparing for the Rice University Business Plan competition. The founders were MBA students and they sought to commercialize the materials technology originally developed by Rice nanotechnology professor James Tour. A-76 went on to win about $600,000 in prizes at the 2014 competition.
As it ramped up production and sales, the startup raised $2.5 million in a Series A round last year. (The product is made locally in the Houston area.) Miller says they are also finding customers in other industrial sectors like marine and transportation where companies also battle corrosion on chains, pulleys, engine parts, or other components that make up heavy-machine operations. “They get rusted up, frozen in place,” Miller says. “Our product penetrates that very quickly and keeps the components in better shape.”
I reconnected with Miller Thursday evening at a rebranding event at Houston’s Minute Maid Park for the company. The startup’s A-76 product line is now called Rust Patrol, while Miller says she renamed the company Aidant Brands. (The re-christening is so new, the startup’s website and social media handles haven’t yet been changed.)
“We realized there are a lot of products in our space with numbers,” she says, referring to household staple WD-40, among others. “We wanted to stand out.”