Arkansas Trucking Report: Jim Phillips, A Well-Oiled Machine
NanoMech CEO Jim Phillips and the Arkansas scientists behind better trucks
It’s not often that you get to meet the man who changed the way the world communicates, conducts business, watches TV, and now maintains the hundreds of machines we’re surrounded by every day. But if you do get the chance to hang out with Jim Phillips, the CEO of NanoMech who developed and introduced instant messaging, the cable modem, DVR and a handful of other devices that run our lives, be prepared to keep up.
Phillips’ presence in a room is electric. He talks about his work with a glimmer in his eye and awe in his voice as he explains how a graduate from Jacksonville High School would dive into the technology sector an introduce the predecessor of texting as we know it, the flip phone, cable internet before Michael Crichton – Yes, that Michael “Jurassic Park” Crichton – tells him about an intriguing new science that could change the world.
If all of this sounds far-fetched, sit back. You need to hear the story of Jim Phillips and the business he’s building in Springdale, Ark. with his closest associate and CTO Dr. Ajay Malshe, one of the world’s first renowned nanoscientists, that promises to make today and tomorrow’s trucks run like a well-oiled machine.
Beam Me Up, Skypager!
Phillips had an early interest in science fiction and moving parts. “I grew up on Star Trek,” he says. At six years old, he was reading hand-me-down issues of Popular Science and Popular Mechanics from his older brother. He grew up all over the world, naming Germany and Panama as early homes, before moving to Arkansas his senior year when his dad was a colonel at the Little Rock Air Force Base.
In a hallway lined with pictures of some of the most powerful entrepreneurs and politicians in the world hanging alongside framed magazine covers he’s graced, Phillips points to a picture of a plane, “The way I learned my life was through flying those like dad.”
He claims his time at Webb Air Force Base in Big Spring, Tex. was just like Top Gun with a best friend whose name was actually Maverick and other real characters like Goose and Major Nail (first name: Rusty). “On Saturdays, I’d go down and learn how to build a plane or take it apart. I’ve always just had an inkling to get my hands on these things. Plus, I was flying in ‘em,” he says.
Something going wrong during high speed dive recoveries in advanced jet training is good motivation to want to know everything about the machine. “You’ve got a speed brake. It’s the flap that drops out of the nose that nobody knows about,” Phillips explains. “I’m hitting this thing to the point that my leather glove got a big hole in it, and [my hand] started bleeding. Open, open, open! Because if [the flap] doesn’t open, I can’t pull it out of that high-speed dive without taking the wings off … and dying.”
For Phillips, the stakes have not always been life or death. He was offered a scholarship to the University of Arkansas. Instead he crossed the Mississippi River to attend the University of Memphis and completed his thesis on Nortel (Northern Telecom), the second largest telecommunications company in the world at that time. He was hired by the company right out of college in 1975 and moved to Dallas to be involved in research and development.
Phillips has a special ability to recognize the possibilities of technology. It’s as if he sees science fiction as just science. When he was presenting the earliest instant messaging to Wall Street, investors and everyone else, it wasn’t easy to share that vision with others.
“People would say what I’ve got is good enough…,” he pauses before continuing, “they had a fax machine,” as if dropping a punchline. Now it is a punchline to think that a fax machine is good enough or fast enough to communicate or conduct any kind of business, but Phillips knew that then.
“They’d look at me and say, ‘Look, if it’s important, it will be there in the morning when I get there. It beats mail by days.”
When he demonstrated the product, called the Skypager, to FedEx, the head of telecommunications was impressed but bet within the year they’d use only 100 Skypagers. Phillips was incredulous. “You have thousands of pilots?” So he promised them that FedEx would use 500 the first year.
“I can tell you exactly how many they had… 1,787 at $69 a month.” The service went viral overnight, and the rest is history. Phillips called Star Trek’s James Doohan to market the service with a variation of his famous catch-phrase, “Beam me up, Skypager.” Today, we could all no more imagine a world without instant messaging as we could without pizza, and that’s no kind of world anyone wants to live in.
The story was similar with the cable modem. Before Phillips shared his vision of Internet outside of telephone companies and the screetching of a dial up handshake, no one would imagine a million TV channels in their Cox Cable bundle.
Nano Level Is The God Level
The vision Phillips is selling now at NanoMech is not better communication. It’s better machines, and for trucking, NanoMech is a gamechanger for preventative maintenance. But the company does not actually make or sell machines at all. What’s being created in the laboratories and on the manufacturing floor at NanoMech is much, much smaller, but infinitely more revolutionary.
In drums stack 10 high are grease, lubricants and sealants that will be shipped to trucking companies and suppliers around the region like Navistar, Summit Truck Group, Tyson Foods, Walmart Transportation and J.B. Hunt to name a few, as well as a long list of others around the nation. The plastic white bottles that will soon appear on retail shelves are labeled nGuard, AtomOil, AtomGuard and Guardx.
The little “n” (like the lower ‘i’ in Apple products) is a reference to the nano level, the AtomLube a reference to the atomic level, or, as Phillips likes to say, the god level.
“Being a Christian, that’s the way I speak it. A lot of people call it the nature level. But I don’t know who Mother Nature is… We are now down to that level where we can make material things just like DNA.”
“Now using nanotechnology and DNA chromosomes, very soon no matter what problem we have, we’ll be able to in and fix by taking out or adjusting chromosomes,” Phillips continues.
To understand the minuteness of the nano level is just as heady as fathoming the vastness of outer space. “We’ve all seen the telescopes that look out 100 million lightyears, and we know it is infinite because we’ve seen it.” The same massive universes are visible when we look inside electron microscopes, according to Phillips.
“That’s why we are working with nano particles. Inside there is the ability to create 3-dimensional periodic tables, with elements, materials. Everything is made of these materials. All your textiles, all your clothes, what you are sitting on. It’s all materials. The air you breath,” he explains with wonder in his voice.
“We can harness that in nanotechnology.”
When the company was first started, they were helping to solve problems in the oil and gas industry when machines were failing in extreme environments like the BP oil spill. According to Phillips, it was a lubrication and sealing issue, and nanotechnology will make sure it doesn’t happen again.
“The biggest oil and gas company, they came to us and said, ‘Can you fix this big problem? Can you create us a sealant, grease, lubricant, that can last at 6,000-8,000 feet down in the ocean for 25 years?’” NanoMech make that product now and ships it all over the world. They can create products that maintain machines in even tougher environments, like satellites that can’t come back down for maintenance and no one can go service them.
The nano level makes it possible to manufacture more safely, too. Motor oil doesn’t have to contain dangerous chemicals like ZDDP anymore. At the nano level, Phillips’ team replaces harmful additives with Arkansas-produced canola oil, safe enough to eat.
Since working with J.B. Hunt just a few miles down the road and getting to know the specific problems of the trucking industry, they are harnessing that potential for better trucks, because like oil fields, trucks operate in all kinds of harsh environments. Phillips tells the story of a truck that hauled pickles, and the brine was sloshing around and eating away the trailer. Coating the insides with nanomanufactured sealants protected the trailers and saved the carrier a lot of money.
“I know it’s rocket science. We apply rocket science to trucks. When we look at trucks, we look at it as a space shuttle. We have to deal with satellites and rockets and everything else.”
When it comes to rocket ships, Phillips would know.
When standing on stage two years ago to accept the Edison Award, which honors excellence and innovation in new products and service development, Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, leaned over and asked Phillips, “Does your ‘stuff’ really work?” and Phillips responded, “Of course, it does.”
Nano in NWA
In the late 90s, Phillips was serving on the Board of Virtus with Michael Crichton, who was working on his novel, Prey, a cautionary tale about nanotechnology, artificial intelligence and genetic engineering.
Around the same time, at a fold-up table outside a public restroom at the University of Arkansas, Dr. Ajay Malshe and Dr. Wenping Jiang were actually practicing the nascent science in Crichton’s book.
To say Dr. Malshe wrote the definition of nanotechnology is no hyperbole. When he graduated in 1992, the formal name of his degree was “submicron physics” because there literally was no word yet for what he was studying. In 2002, he was invited to Puerto Rico with a group of scientists to define nanotechnology as the industry began to gain traction.
“There was no definition. Nothing on Wikipedia, nothing in Encyclopedia Britannica,” Malshe says. “I remember myself being on the board, inventing the word nanomanufacturing and what it means.”
Malshe had been building a program in Arkansas, teaching classes, graduating students and Ph.D.s, writing research publications, but the one thing he felt like he had not yet done was practice what he invented. He wanted to create “something that I can put in the hands of people.”
Malshe grew up in India, but today, he’s spent more of his life in America. “This is my homeland, and India is my motherland.” He and his wife fell in love with Northwest Arkansas when he was recruited to the University of Arkansas for his doctorate. When Malshe had the opportunity to start a business and practice science outside the classroom, he didn’t look further that his own backyard.
“When I was younger, I always had an ambition that I will build a place rather than a place building me. I was one of those people who swam against the flow. So I decided to stay here and build a reputation in my area, what I do – manufacturing,” he says.
It took a long time for NanoMech to win the three Edison Awards (2014, 2016 and 2017), to be granted its latest government contract improve the military’s uniforms with materials that protect the wearer from bullets, odors and disease-carrying insects, or to use that same technology to create antimicrobial truck cabs. Unlike a software or app business that could be built quickly and sold for a lot of money, Malshe says it took time to conceive the idea and understand the sound foundation of science.
“Every business has two sides: a science technology product side and then business acumen. NanoMech in the first ten years was really strong in the science and understanding technology, but I must admit that we never had – I never had a mentor like Jim.”
If you want to stand on the shoulders of giants, Northwest Arkansas is the place to do it with legacies like Sam Walton, Don Tyson, J.B. Hunt. “I wish I had the opportunity to meet them because entrepreneurship is contagious. But I only heard those stories; I had no one around that I could look at and talk to and get advice.”
Malshe found someone with the business acumen that the company needed in Jim Phillips. Phillips had been asked by Fred Smith to help build the FedEx Institute of Technology (FIT) at his alma mater in 2000. Crichton’s book had intrigued Phillips, and FIT, called the MIT of the South, began researching nano bioscience.
This led to Phillips meeting the University of Arkansas professors who were already working at the nano level. It was a “small little group, and then somehow, someway, I invested,” Phillips recalls. “The next thing you know I became CEO. That’s when we started building out here, building factories.”
Assembling a Top Team
While Malshe has advanced degrees from Ohio State University and University of Arkansas, Phillips didn’t groom his love for science and technology in the classroom. The photos that hang on the wall are of his good friends, Steve, Billy and Mike (Jobs, Gates and Dell respectively), and Phillips says, “Those guys not only don’t have science and engineering degrees, they don’t have degrees. They all dropped out as freshman.”
He would never tell someone not to go to college, but he knows that you don’t have to study science if you have vision and are surrounded by people who practice science. And all his life, he’s surrounded himself with the brightest, most beautiful minds on the planet.
In fact, most of their employees were once Dr. Malshe’s students, and NanoMech has paid the University of Arkansas $1 million, more if you count stocks. They are invested in the students and the community of Northwest Arkansas.
“What attracted me to investing at the beginning of it all was the fact that this science team are brilliant scientists. We hired them here as interns, and they were in Ajay’s classes,” Phillips says.
“They were actually all my students for years. So this relationship we are describing is more than…” Malshe trails off.
At NanoMech, you never get the sense that science is cold. Phillips and Malshe both talk of their team as the smartest, most loyal, most worthy of respect no matter where they come from. In fact, that diversity is celebrated.
“All my scientists come from overseas,” says Phillips. “They are all immigrants. Our parents were immigrants at one point, or grandparents or great grandparents. They got their Ph.D.s here. They got their American citizenship. It’s so neat in Arkansas to see these guys. We start them off as interns when they are students, and then we pick the best and brightest. As they get their master’s and as they get their doctorate or post doctorate, we are also paying and working with them to get their American citizenship. And their wives or husbands get Ph.D.s too,” he continues.
They don’t want them going anywhere else, taking that talent and determination outside of the state or outside of the country, because they believe in American innovation and bringing back U.S. manufacturing.
One of the most recent talents Phillips recruited is not a scientist at all though. Bryan Peoples has been in the transportation industry since he was born. His parents and grandparents both owned trucking companies, and after graduating from University of Central Arkansas with a degree in business, Peoples worked for trucking heavy hitters like J.B. Hunt Transport and Tyson Foods. He was working Lowell, Ark. for Transplace, a large transportation 3PL, when he met Phillips.
NanoMech was looking for someone that knew the trucking industry inside and out. They had Malshe’s students working on the mechanical engineering, wearing the lab coats and producing answers, but what they needed was someone who knew the right questions that trucking would ask.
“From a customer standpoint, I can’t stand not having freight moving. It needs to be rolling. If my truck is in the shop, the customer is getting mad, the driver is getting mad, and we’re losing revenue if the wheels aren’t turning. So how can we improve that?” Peoples asks.
“Bryan knew that the most important thing with trucks is uptime. Any downtime takes the whole system down and can create safety issues… he grew up walking around in trucking maintenance,” Phillips says of Peoples.
Peoples, Malshe and Phillips meet with safety and maintenance executives daily to listen to the problems the machines cause and consider how those solutions can be found using nanotechnology. The new trucks contain more electrical connections than ever, but those connections carry corrosion risk.
To give truck drivers more uptime, NanoMech has created dielectric grease and other lubricants that extend the time between maintenance cycles. Right now, they are regularly extending a truck’s maintenance cycle from every 24,000 miles to every 75,000 miles.
Phillips jokes about wanting to work on gravity resistant materials next for hoverboards, but the science that goes into solving friction issues for 80,000 lb. trucks is just as impressive.
“Think for a second,” Malshe says, “if human cancer is at the human cell level, people treat humans from head to toe with chemotherapy. It’s like you are killing a bird with a cannon. It is so primitive. So I realized that people are taking are of mechanical machines by slapping on lots of lubricants, but the problem is not at that scale. It is at a smaller scale… All the problems left to solve are at nano scale. Therefore, all the solutions are at nano scale.”
And it’s that kind of thinking and the results it produces that Peoples says is blowing the minds of the people they meet who are lathering trucks with the same grease and lubes that were created 30 or 40 years ago.
Phillips says that’s why NanoMech is going to revolutionize trucking, “We out-science everyone.”