As the team at Trusscore Inc. tells the story, an anti-drywall revolution has begun at a plastics extrusion facility behind a Tim Hortons, an hour northwest of Waterloo.
It’s here that Dave Caputo is living out his lifelong fantasy of ending the hegemonic reign of his least favourite home-building material. The networking technology entrepreneur, who served as a vice-president at PixStream Inc. and chief executive officer of Sandvine Inc. – each of which were sold for more than half a billion dollars – simply can’t stand painted drywall.
His hatred was first for aesthetic reasons, lamenting the knicks, nail pops and mis-set corner beads. It gradually became environmental: As the world’s millions of do-it-yourself contractors know, cutting drywall to shape can leave much of the gypsum board wasted – somewhere between 10 per cent and 20 per cent, depending on who you ask. And though drywall can be recycled, much of it winds up in landfills and rots, releasing hydrogen sulfide gas that’s responsible for the rotten-egg stench at many dumps.
It was here in Palmerston, after Sandvine was sold off in 2017, that Mr. Caputo decided to take his loathing to the next level. He invested in a local plastics extrusion company named MSW Plastics and set it on a path more familiar to a startup than a small-town manufacturer – one of technological disruption.
The company hopes to take a bite out of the drywall market, which is expected to be worth US$28-billion by 2023, according to the Freedonia Group, a market research organization. “We want to do to drywall what drywall did to plaster,” Mr. Caputo says.
Now named Trusscore, the company’s business model seems simple: It makes PVC walls reinforced with truss-shaped cores, and increasingly markets them for garages and basements. But the story Mr. Caputo wants Trusscore to tell is one in which its past bears little in common with its future – a company that began making walls to separate pigs in farm buildings and hopes to become a leader in applied nanotechnology, displacing drywall along the way.
It’s a more linear path than it sounds. The company was first launched in 2007 as the Canadian outpost of MSW Plastics by Steve Bosman and Joel Koops, Ontario entrepreneurs who had been importing PVC panelling from a German company of the same name. They sold the panels as easy-to-clean dividers for pigs, helping farmers and agribusinesses separate them as the H1N1 swine flu began ravaging the livestock late in the decade.
As that business steadied the company, the pair began exploring other uses for their panels, including residential sales – and began selling their panels as a drywall alternative for basements and garages. The prefabricated PVC boards are a half-inch thick, 16 inches wide and range from eight feet to 20 feet in length. They interlock with relative ease which, in tandem with the range of sizes, means installation can be four times faster than drywall, the company says. The panels are recyclable and easier to clean, too.
The duo were making the products just fine, but Mr. Koops and Mr. Bosman dreamed of a bigger presence in the residential and commercial markets. “We got to a point where we said, ‘We’re penetrating some of these other markets on a smaller level,’” Mr. Koops says.
Then they found their anti-drywall ambassador.
In 2016, Mr. Bosman and Mr. Koops bought out the German company’s shares as they sought more independence. That independence came to take a shape neither would anticipate. Mr. Koops had befriended Mr. Caputo by then, connecting through monthly meetings of the Young Presidents’ Organization.
Mr. Caputo was enjoying what he calls “funemployment” after the Sandvine sale. But after getting to know Mr. Koops some more, he says, “all of a sudden, it slapped us in the face that we both wanted to replace wall coverings.”
The erstwhile networking-tech exec agreed to join Trusscore as its CEO, with Mr. Bosman as its chief manufacturing officer and Mr. Koops as executive vice-president.
It was December, 2019.
The reformed company began quickly adopting more of a startup mentality, expanding its marketing as a drywall alternative while investing in research and development. That meant hiring specialists, sometimes doctorate-level ones specializing in nanotechnology, chemistry and mechanical design, to refine their PVC boards. With this expertise, the newly renamed Trusscore began to improve various qualities over time: durability, cleanability, fire resistance – and, maybe, add visual enhancements.
Three months later, they faced a shutdown alongside the rest of the world. Wondering whether they might be considered essential in those early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Trusscore team quickly realized the situation created demand for something that wasn’t too different than their original product: barriers to prevent the spread of a rampant disease.
TempWall was born. It was 1⅜ inches thick, easy to assemble and mountable on feet to create barriers and enclaves. The nanotechnologists got to work, too, finding a coating they could apply to make it virus-resistant. The system worked; they began to offer it to nearby hospitals in and around Waterloo, and eventually elsewhere in Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba and Alberta. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave them a shout-out they’re proud of to this day.
Then, as the early waves of the pandemic subsided, the Trusscore team got back to work on their primary goal: destroying the market for drywall.
It was a battle with many fronts. On the capacity front, they bolstered their plants in Palmerston and Ohio with a factory in Calgary this past July. On the awareness front, they also needed to build a market and ward off potential competitors; at least one similar company has emerged in California.
Early help there came in the form of an endorsement from popular TV handyman Bryan Baeumler, who’s helped woo the home-reno crowd. “His passion and hate for drywall is equivalent to Trusscore’s,” Mr. Bosman says with a smile.
The company also secured US$26-million in venture capital funding, drawing the attention of the startup crowd. The funding was led by Round 13 Capital’s new Earth Tech Fund, which seeks out companies with environmental benefits. It, too, has a TV personality at the helm – co-founder Bruce Croxon, the former Dragon’s Den panelist.
Yet more fronts remain in Trusscore’s battle. If it wants to defeat drywall, it has to win the residential market. But one of its defining features is also its Achilles heel: It’s shiny. The glossy finish makes it easy to clean – and, in moist environments such as basements, unlikely to grow mould – but it’s not quite den-ready. “I think it’s ready to go in your living room,” Mr. Caputo says. “But some people might say, ‘Hey, that’s too high-gloss.’”
With its fresh funding, though, Trusscore has some freedom to experiment. A matte finish will come eventually, they hope. There are also industrial customers and, perhaps, commercial ones. With less fear of a glossy finish in those markets, there may be even more potential with them.
Mr. Caputo is the chair of Communitech, the innovation hub in Kitchener that’s seen hundreds of companies come through its doors at various stages of their growth. The hub houses space for the University of Waterloo’s Velocity startup centre. Trusscore’s R&D team is based in that space, trying to find even more ways to make a drywall alternative that’s much more interesting than drywall.
As flurries fell in late fall, Mr. Caputo asked his director of R&D, Ryan Gerakopulos, to turn on what he called Trusscore’s “digital paint.” Pressing his finger to a tablet, a section of PVC wall began glowing yellow. With a flick of Mr. Gerakopulos’s fingers, and it began to glow red. Another, and it turned blue.
At the moment, LED lights embedded within the PVC wall are doing the trick. But Trusscore’s R&D team is exploring using chemicals that change colours when a low voltage is applied. Eventually, the company envisions these glowing walls in boardrooms – or maybe nightclubs. It’ll take a few years. But the would-be small-town plastics extrusion company has that kind of time. It’s got money, endorsements, venture financing and a serial entrepreneur at the helm.
Mr. Caputo’s battle is far from over, but he’s committed. “Personally, I think this product is beautiful.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article gave incorrect dimensions for the PVC boards. This version has been corrected.
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