When Guy Cramer was a young man growing up in Port Coquitlam, B.C., his grandfather, Donald Hings, offered him some sage advice on how to keep trade secrets from falling into enemy hands.
Mr. Hings, a Canadian telecommunications pioneer who invented the walkie-talkie and registered more than 50 patents during his long career, advised Mr. Cramer to protect his ideas through copyright whenever possible.
"He told me, 'If you can avoid it, don't ever take out a patent, it's a blueprint for everyone to follow, it's only good for the country you register it in, and it's only good for 20 years, so people will just wait you out and then copy your stuff,'" Mr. Cramer recalled.
Some two decades later, Mr. Cramer has emerged as a world leader in the art of camouflage design, his work is sought-after by military and special forces around the world, and his grandfather's words of wisdom are starting to pay huge dividends. "Our designs are protected by copyright, which is immediate and worldwide, for my entire life plus another 50 years," said Mr. Cramer, founder of HyperStealth Biotechnology Corp. in Maple Ridge, B.C.
"It doesn't cost a fortune like registering patents and it doesn't have to be disclosed in the same way so there's not a big blueprint out there."
Like any other businessman who deals in intellectual property, Mr. Cramer, a self-taught expert in the science of concealment, has a vested interest in keeping his prototypes away from competitors. But with the core of his business coming from armed forces, he has another reason to keep a low profile – his best work is considered classified information.
Sorel Leinburd, a Vancouver-based intellectual property lawyer, said Mr. Cramer's business imperatives run counter to conventional practice in the apparel industry, where the name of the game is trademarks, branding and marketing. "Here's a guy who needs to stay below the radar. He's obviously found a very lucrative niche and he's going to have an advantage as long as it stays secret," Mr. Leinburd explained.
Even the HyperStealth website has a cloak-and-dagger feel, displaying only a fraction of the company's camouflage designs, mostly early efforts that Mr. Cramer now dismisses as "primitive."
"We're not going to show our competitors our best stuff on our website, but if you're a tier-one or tier-two special forces group, we've got a whole different library for you to look at."
Founded by Mr. Cramer and his grandfather in 1999, HyperStealth Biotechnology began life as a research firm focused on developing a passive negative ion generator for use in hyperbaric chambers, an idea that met with limited success. A former Canadian paintball champion, Mr. Cramer unwittingly launched his career as a camouflage designer in 2002, shortly after the Canadian Forces unveiled an updated, standard-issue pattern that took three years and millions of dollar to develop.
Convinced that the Canadian camouflage was "a waste of taxpayers money," he posted some of his own digitally rendered creations on the Internet in protest. "With about two hours and a $100 graphics program I managed to do a better camouflage," he said.
Six months later, Mr. Cramer received a phone call informing him that King Abdullah of Jordan was interested in his designs, the start of a relationship that opened the door to contracts with other countries, including the United States and Britain.
"When we finished with Jordan we posted the leftover patterns to see what the interest was and it was huge," Mr. Cramer said.
Mr. Leinburd said the biggest challenge for entrepreneurs hoping to sell new technology to the military is establishing high-level contacts. "I'm aware of other situations where guys have had great technology, great products but it's really difficult to get a foot in the door to see the right person at the department of defence in Canada or the U.S."
With opportunity knocking, Mr. Cramer threw himself into the science and became an expert in using digital camouflage to disrupt visual cues that help the human eye pick up colour, movement and shapes.
Tests have shown that a soldier's eyes will pass over camouflaged objects and discard the visual information as "background noise," tricking the brain into thinking there's no threat. One of the company's patterns has been "objectively tested as 240 per cent harder to detect and 170 per cent harder to recognize the target," the company's website claims, in comparison with current U.S. digital camouflage. The testing is done in secret U.S. military research labs.
In 2004, Mr. Cramer joined forces with Lieutenant Colonel Timothy O'Neill, founder of the U.S. Military Academy's engineering-psychology program, to develop a "snow pattern" for the U.S. Marine Corps. Mr. O'Neill is now a trusted adviser and frequent collaborator.
Despite having only two employees, Mr. Cramer and a part-time assistant, HyperStealth has also forged a partnership with one of the world's biggest suppliers of military equipment, U.S.-based ADS Inc., which printed and delivered the fabric for the Afghan National Army's uniforms.
Mr. Cramer "worked very quietly" at first, part of a calculated strategy to establish himself in the military marketplace without attracting the attention of competitors. "About four years after the Jordanian program, we started coming out with many, many patterns and it really caught everyone off guard," he said.
He then had to start worrying about knockoffs and enforcing his copyright.
Earlier this year, Mr. Cramer decided to start printing sample fabrics "in-house" after a pattern destined for U.S. military use "ended up in the hands of a competitor."
He recently purchased a $200,000 digitized printing system – "two huge textile machines and a very expensive heat press" – that can produce prototype samples within hours and fill "short-run" orders for military groups that require a quick turnaround. But he's not sure if larger scale production is in the company's future.
Like his grandfather, Mr. Cramer sees himself as an inventor first, and his primary mission is to push the art of deception beyond its conventional boundaries. He's developed a battery-powered fabric called "SmartCamo" that can change colour from forest green to sandy brown with the flick of a switch. At $1,000 per uniform, the material is too expensive to mass-produce and impractical for soldiers due to the need for a power source. However, it's ideal for tanks and other military vehicles where the cost of the equipment may justify the addition of high-end camouflage, he said.
HyperStealth is also working on a type of camouflage the company is calling "quantum-stealth," made from futuristic light-refracting materials that are, Mr. Cramer insists, able to bend light waves around objects and render them invisible.
Mr. Cramer is also due to sign a deal with the U.S., Canadian and British armed forces under which the Canadians will take the lead in developing HyperStealth's new technologies "from the current prototypes into products for use in defence and security."
But don't bother asking for specifics on how his inventions work. He's keeping that part of the picture hidden from view.
"For reasons of security we can't let the bad guys figure it out," he said. "So it has to stay secret at least until somebody captures it and reverse engineers the technology."
Special to The Globe and Mail
Join The Globe's Small Business LinkedIn group to network with other entrepreneurs and to discuss topical issues: http://linkd.in/jWWdzT