A Local Company Finds that Virginia is Open for International Business

By Doug Barry

If you work around hazardous chemicals, there are badges that you’ll want to wear because they will save your life. The very smart badges are made by Morphix Technologies, a small company in Virginia Beach, VA, and they have big sales in China, Europe, and elsewhere. 

Kimberly Chapman, vice president of sales and marketing, is one of the employee-owners. She’s been on the job since 1993, when the original owner and maker of air sampling pumps got sick and decided to sell after thriving during a long period of action on asbestos detection and remediation.  

“The new company owners were going to shut the business down, because they weren’t making money yet,” recalled Chapman. “Five of us employees bought the company from the new owner so it wouldn’t be shut down.” 

“If US-China trade shuts off or is substantially reduced, that would be very concerning for our company.”

“The five of us were sitting in a room and we were like ‘who is going to sell this stuff?’ One said, ‘You like people, Kim, why don’t you do the selling?’” A chemist by training, Chapman dove into business development by necessity, drawing on her technical expertise to explain the products to potential customers. 

The new employee-owners did their day jobs, and then manufactured by hand after-hours. Within eight months, they were profitable. They built a facility with a full lab for six chemists, in addition to Chapman. 

 

Smart badges 

Their secret sauce: A sensor that works like pH paper but is extremely rugged for real-life applications. Each badge is made to be very sensitive to a particular chemical. Selectivity and sensitivity are key, and accurate readings can help save the lives of individuals working with or around dangerous chemicals, including first responders to disasters. The badge changes color to alert the person wearing it long before they will be exposed to a dangerous level of the chemical. The badge turns a darker color as exposure intensifies, but hopefully the wearer will have retreated to a safer distance. 

They have a couple competitors for badges sold to chemical plants. One competitor’s product has paper in it, which is useless when it gets wet. Morphix Technologies has a patented sensor that is coated on plastic that forms the badge. “When I visited China, one of our customers gave me a badge that looked like ours, but it was cardboard. We exposed it to a chemical and it didn’t work. Not a good result when you are working with a chemical that would kill you with a few breaths.” 

Current customers in the United States include major chemical companies. When the China Chemistry Council started looking into improving safety practices at members’ plants, US and EU companies were asked to share best practices. The Council wanted all their member chemical companies to have good safety practices so they can reduce accidents that might cause a black eye to the entire industry, said Chapman. She was invited to speak at an event, and that’s how they got their first Chinese customers as well as their first customer in Germany.  

Morphix has a large distributor network but also has direct relationships with customers in China, the European Union, and the United States. Currently, 50 percent of sales are international, and 40 percent of that are China. They have a very large customer in China and have done business with them for nearly 10 years. This company has added three plants in China recently and its owners are talking about building one in the United States. That plant would produce ingredients for polyurethane. “As this company grows, we will too,” she declared. 

But with seemingly everything China coming under scrutiny in the United States these days, such investment plans may run afoul of worsening bilateral tensions. She said: “If US-China trade shuts off or is substantially reduced, that would be very concerning for our company. We’d likely have to shift most of what we sell there to wherever the EU and US companies in China move their factories, which will be hard to do.” 

Chapman says that many smaller businesses trading with China are examples of what’s working in the US relationship with China, and an area of cooperation that’s beneficial for both countries. “I don’t talk politics with my customers in China, but I think their views are similar to mine about the importance of working together.” 

“The people I talk with are mainly on the purchasing or the safety side, not high-level management. I wouldn’t want to say something that would be inappropriate that could destroy the relationship.” 

She does not have an extensive background in China, other than her first visit 10 years ago and multiple business trips since. “Chinese people are kind to Westerners. I have always been treated great there.” 

 

Product ideas while hospitalized 

She had one not good experience, but it had nothing to do with customers. She went to a chemical plant in a distant part of China, traveling by airplane, train, and then 1.5 hours by car. She was offered water, asking her hosts only if it was bottled. They said yes. Within a day, she was in a local hospital with typhoid, where she spent seven days and $17,000 for treatment. 

While in the hospital bed, she was working on the commercialization strategy for a product idea that had been developed by her colleague, Chief Technology Officer Dr. Ed Locke. Ironically, the potential product could have prevented her illness, and she included a statement in the USDA proposal about writing the commercialization strategy while being treated for a food borne illness. Morphix Technologies is now developing a product to prevent food borne illness. It is a smart sticker that will indicate whether fruits and vegetables were treated with enough chemicals to be safe from water borne disease. “The key is the concentration and length of time disinfectant gas is used to treat the item. A tomato with a smooth surface doesn’t need as much chemical as a cantaloupe with a bumpy surface.” 

“I’m glad our business is based in a state that supports trade, including trade with China.” 

The gas has already been approved by the FDA as safe for food and humans. Getting rid of bacteria also improves shelf life, where a tomato can go from lasting five days to 14 days. “It allows fruits and vegetables to travel better than they would before. It can help reduce hunger and spoilage around the world.”  

She loves the idea of creating a public good wherever in the world it’s needed. “Our products are for safety. The value of life doesn’t change with where someone is living or working. For those who are wearing our badges, it is truly saving lives.” 

Chapman says she has not yet made efforts to reach out to her Congressional representatives to make a case for considering the interests of small business in trade policy. Geopolitical tensions haven’t impacted sales yet, and they just signed a supply agreement through 2024 with their main Chinese customer. The China business is very important to us and is significant to our bottom line, she noted. “The situation is very fluid now, and we’re watching it very closely, hoping for the best.” 

For now, she counts her company’s blessings, including the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, a state agency that helps Virginia companies find partners overseas, does market research, and even helps her find companies that produce chemical inputs, including ones she needs for her new food safety product. She also works with the US Commercial Service of the Commerce Department that offers a “Gold Key” service, which she used to find two distributors in India. 

“I’m glad our business is based in a state that supports trade, including trade with China.”