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the challenge contest

Rob Botman, general manager of Glassopolis is seen here inside the company's glass-cutting and warehousing facility in Toronto Thursday July 7, 2012.Tim Fraser

Glassopolis Inc.

Where based: Toronto

What the company does: Seller and distributor of fire-resistant glass

When launched: 2008

Number of employees: 20

Revenue: About $10-million in 2011


While Glassopolis may be a few years old, its roots date back to the early twentieth century. The original business, Richards Glass Co., was created in 1912 to sell glassware to the pharmaceutical industry, largely for pill bottles.

Richards has since been through several name changes and business expansions, ranging from distributing laboratory-related glassware to selling fire-resistant glass for the fireplace industry.

In the 1990s, under the name Pro Science Inc., the company expanded further into fire-resistant glass for architectural purposes – mainly windows in stairwell doors, which must be fire-resistant, since that's the only exit for people from a burning building. The glass is used in the stairwells of a variety of buildings, from offices, to hotels, to schools and hospitals.

The company had a deal with a Japanese manufacturer and distributor to sell the glass to Canadian retailers. In 2008, it found and switched over to a German company that could manufacture the same glass, which gave it the right to become a master distributor across North America. Pro Science decided to create a new brand to focus on this glass, forming Glassopolis, which is a wholly owned subsidiary that operates as a separate business.

In 2009, Glassopolis began selling into the U.S. market, as well as Canada. In the past last three years, it has grown revenues in this glass by 200 per cent. Now it has a new product, with which it wants to do the same.

The Challenge:

Some buildings need more than a small piece of fire-resistant glass in a stairwell door. Many car dealerships, for example, have glassed-in rooms where people can watch their vehicle getting a tune-up. Similarly, universities have glassed-in libraries.

For such larger spaces, the glass must be fire-resistant for longer periods – able to withstand up to 120 minutes of intense heat. And that calls for a thicker and heavier glass.

Pro Science dabbled in that market, but, in 2010, Glassopolis decided to put its focus on this glass in a big way. It worked with a company to develop the thicker glass and took exclusive master distributor rights. It will now be the only company in North America that can sell the glass from this manufacturer.

This category of glass is still fairly new, says Rob Botman, general manager of Glassopolis, who co-owns the company with Jordan Richards, the founder's great-grandson and current president.

And he sees big potential. He estimates the thicker glass is a $50-million market, and figures if he can go ahead, he could get $10-million of that over the next three years. If he managed that, he would double Glassopolis's revenue.

That's not the only reason he wants to get into this market. "This will truly save lives when a building is threatened by a fire," he wrote in the company's application.

However, this glass is also up to six times thicker and 16 times heavier than the glass the company has previously been working with. And its current glass-cutting and handling equipment cannot deal with the glass. Its forklift would crumble under the weight, and a special saw is needed to cut and process the glass.

Glassopolis is ready to start to sell this new product. It needs the equipment to move forward.

The Solution:

In order to go forth, Glassopolis needs two main pieces of equipment: a forklift and a special saw. The saw doesn't come cheap, costing anywhere from $50,000 to $100,00, excluding shipping. "None of these things exist in Toronto," Mr. Botman says. The saw would likely have to be shipped form the United States or Europe.

A huge forklift is also expensive – about $70,000. Though Glassopolis could buy what it needs used, new equipment would be more reliable and have a longer life, he says.

What it would  do with the money:

While it wouldn't cover the entire cost of these equipment purchases, it would go a long  way toward making them happen. The company has about $45,000 earmarked for new equipment; it would use those funds, plus the winnings, to buy top-of-the-line equipment.

What the judges say:

Jim Senko, vice-president of small-  to medium-sized business market with Telus Corp.:

"They're a proven, results-oriented company. I like the tangibility of what they want to do in terms of getting into a new product niche. We can see how they would succeed. I also like the inherent goodness in the product around fire safety and protecting people and they have a great orientation around community giving. They've taken what could be seen as a boring industry and they're constantly innovating."

Sean Stanleigh, editor of The Globe and Mail's Report on Small Business:

"They were very clear in what their product is and what it does. This is a business that's constantly trying to innovate. They're growth minded, ambitious and thinking a lot about how their product will increase their sales."