For Imaflex President and CEO Joe Abbandonato, the goal is simple – “Take over the world.”
It’s a bold statement by Joe (as he likes to be called), but he says it in a very matter-of-fact way, like he fully expects it to happen. He’s no Doctor Evil though, so rest easy. Joe is actually a very pleasant man with a quick laugh and a confident air that befits a CEO of his years.
In business since the age of 27, Abbandonato, and two associates, founded Imaflex, in 1993, and in January 1994 made their first sales in polyethylene (or plastic) film. For the first 10 years, the Montreal-based company focused on packaging materials such as bags and wrappers, which they sold to companies that specialized in printing, laminating and bag making.
Then, in 2004 Imaflex’s R&D team developed a metallized plastic film product for the agricultural industry. It was directed at vegetable and fruit growers, who normally spread plastic film (referred to in the industry as ‘mulch film’) over their fields immediately after spraying chemicals. The film is laid down by a tractor, with the sprayer in the front and plastic-layer on the back. They use this technique to sanitize the soil before planting and to save on chemicals and water, because the polyethylene acts as a shield to minimize evaporation.
Imaflex’s metallized version of this film was not only better at holding in the expensive chemicals, meaning growers could use less chemicals to get the same sterilization, but also the reflective properties of the metallized film repelled insects and accelerated plant growth.
The invention caught the attention of Bayer, the German research giant behind products like Aspirin and Alka-Seltzer. They wanted Imaflex’s help to create a plastic film that could be coated with agricultural chemicals, the same ones that were traditionally sprayed by growers. The idea was to take spraying – a wasteful and harmful practice for the environment – out of the equation.
“We worked with the Bayer team to create the polyethylene they could use for their coated patent, but in the process our polymer people came to me with an alternative to coating, which was a process called ‘co-extrusion,’” says Joe.
“It took a few years but our team figured it out. In the end Bayer got a patent on their coated product, and Imaflex and Bayer got a 50-50 patent on the co-extruded product.”
The catalyst to release the chemicals for both products was water. As the vapour rises from the ground and reaches the plastic film it causes the chemicals to drip down into the soil.
After a few years of testing the technology, in preparation for the EPA registration, and a market launch, Imaflex learned that Bayer was going to shelve their coated patent. So in 2014 Imaflex purchased Bayer’s coated patent and Bayer’s half of the co-owned patent, along with all related rights and assets, to become the sole owner of this revolutionary product.
This marked step one of Joe’s strategy to ‘take over the world.’
So here’s Imaflex, a company that started out with three employees, has since grown to 200, and now owns patents to technology that can revolutionize an industry estimated at $9 billion worldwide. And because the films are proprietary, they have no competitors.
“I’m confident that we’ll be able to get the majority of the 3.2 billion pounds of polyethylene film used worldwide for two reasons. First, we estimate that a grower will be able to save between $200 to $800 an acre using our film, depending on what they’re growing. That’s considerable savings, especially for the major growers out there,” says Joe.
“Secondly, our product is phenomenally green. By eliminating spraying from the sanitization process, it prevents the evaporation of harmful chemicals which can accumulate over the years and affect the water table. And once a grower is done with the film, it can be picked up and easily recycled.”
Export Development Canada (EDC) was able to help Imaflex in their growth, first by insuring their accounts receivable and then by providing them with a $3 million loan in 2014. The loan essentially replaced the cash that Imaflex spent to bring their advanced agricultural films to market.
“Imaflex is a high potential company with a strong export mandate that has made its name on sound research and development,” says Frank Trentadue, EDC Account Manager for Imaflex. “Our financial support is meant to help them reach that next level and ‘take over the world’ as Joe puts it. Their products are innovative and always improving, and Joe is the kind of entrepreneur who will be able to capitalize on the international opportunities that are sure to come. This is a great example of Canadian ingenuity making an impact on the world stage.”