When John Kinzer was first introduced to the technology that would eventually become Visionary Fiber Technologies Inc., he admits that he didn’t fully understand it.
The Lockhart-based industrial-scale refining and material processing technology company was born out of patents developed by a chemist at Texas State University, who for years tried to commercialize them. When they were sent to Kinzer in 2018, he in turn sent them to friends who were chemists and biochemists, who helped him realize their importance.
“I said, ‘Hey can you translate this for me?’ Much to my delight when they did, I realized how valuable and how big of an opportunity this technology presented to refining and material processing industries,” said Kinzer, Visionary Fiber’s president and CEO.
Kinzer said VFT has been on an upward trajectory pretty much since then. Later in 2018, Kinzer was able to raise enough funding to launch the company and buy a 30,000-square-foot, World War II-era T-shirt factory on 5.5 acres at 1400 Blackjack Street in Lockhart, about 35 miles southeast of downtown Austin. The company renovated the space and opened around January 2019.
What started as a six-person enterprise has grown to 50 employees — and the headcount is set to surge again. Visionary Fiber leaders are ready to start work on a $10 million renovation and expansion that will add a 6,900-square-foot office component, slated to open by the end of the year. That will allow them to add at least 25 employees.
“Our ability to attract talent is fantastic. But it’s hard to attract that talent when you don’t have anywhere to put them,” Kinzer said.
Adding 25 employees would entrench Visionary Fiber as one of the dozen or so largest employers in the city, according to online data from the Lockhart Economic Development Corp.
The company received incentives from both the city of Lockhart and Caldwell County to move to the site. Both entities last month updated incentives agreements to account for the additional investment and increase property tax abatements that the company receives. Under the terms of the incentives deals, Visionary Fiber has to add at least 25 jobs as well as the additional investment.
“The new and reconfigured space will allow for more jobs to be created and facilitate the growth of the company in the future. They’re ready to move on this as quickly as the city can permit it,” Mike Kamerlander, Lockhart’s interim economic development director, said during a Feb. 28 Caldwell County meeting.
Kinzer said company executives are extremely happy to be in Lockhart but admitted that they didn’t always think they’d end up there.
When they were looking for a building, Kinzer said employees wanted to be in Austin. He drew concentric circles starting from the city and started looking at available spots along the line, first starting in the northwest suburbs, and making his way around the city’s outskirts.
“Lockhart was our last stop. All the other locations that I visited had potential but this one had this building in place plus plenty of room to grow,” he said.
An entity tied to VFT — Lockhart Fiber Facility LLC — owns the 5.5 acres the building sits on, Caldwell County property records show.
Other examples of recent economic activity in Lockhart, a city known for its classic county courthouse square and barbecue, include Factory Builders Stores leasing space in a new industrial park for a 168,000-square-foot distribution center and approval of an incentives agreement to aid The Ziegenfelder Co. in building a frozen treat factory.
Revolutionizing old technology
What makes VFT different from other materials processors is the technology behind it.
Almost every product that modern humans touch is processed, and Kinzer said for more than a half-century, the act of transforming raw materials into useful things has remained mostly the same. It is handled by heat, pressure and agitation, which can be expensive and energy intensive.
John Massingill created the technology at the core of the company by using surface area as a medium for chemical reaction. That allows them to process raw materials more cheaply, with less of a footprint and less energy but at a high level of quality.
Kinzer called the chemist “brilliant” and credited him with establishing the foundation for the company. Massingill has retired but remains an investor in VFT.
“It’s very seldom that you have a Ph.D. chemist who also knows how to be an entrepreneur,” Kinzer said.
VFT has commercialized its tech for two industries — renewable energy and food ingredients — and is in discussions with companies in the metal and pharmaceutical arenas. Kinzer declined to provide the names of the less than a dozen companies VFT works with, only saying they are big, global businesses. He said the business pulled in seven figures in revenue its first year and is on track for a “solid” eight figures this year but declined to give specific revenue numbers.
With the potential to adapt the technology to a huge range of industries, Kinzer said he VFT’s biggest challenge is staying disciplined in their growth approach.
“There are so many doors that we could go through and one of the things that I really continue to be firm on is discipline because we cannot try to do everything,” he said. “That’s the surest way to failure. We’ve been very disciplined about sort of identifying the market, our technology readiness and then the likelihood of adoption.”
He said the No. 2 challenge is conveying their value to large companies.
“The challenge for us is to make sure that we have enough opportunities in different arenas with different companies, customers, so that we’re not entirely dependent on one or two people,” Kinzer said. “That is the focus this year. It’s really so key because that granulation of our revenue is what’s going to really give us predictability and certainty and confidence and being able to forecast our business and make investments.”
With those big goals, he said the current building — which has also been used as an office equipment supplier and hobbyist collector space — will be primarily used for office, lab and manufacturing space for development, scale-up and engineers. The new building will serve as the corporate offices, with conference rooms and executive space.
Kinzer said VFT has gotten all of the approvals needed from the city and county and that sub-contractors are getting in bids. The architect for the project is Land and Design and the general contractor is Countywide Builders.
Eventually, Kinzer could see VFT having a full-scale campus, with a sales office and deployment team.
“But I would say for the foreseeable future … this is ample space,” he said.