What started as a greenhouse plant sprayer found a second life as one of the nation’s leading surface disinfection tools with the help of a Jerry S. Rawls College of Business graduate.
Joshua Robertson, a Texas Tech University alumnus, starts his days early, fielding calls in his Fort Worth office from around the world and occasionally the White House. His company, EMist Disinfection Solutions, manufactures and sells innovative electrostatic disinfection sprayers. Using a safe, Environmental Protection Agency-registered, water-soluble disinfectant of their choosing, operators use an EMist sprayer to apply the chemical to kill germs on surfaces at a time when decontamination of those surfaces is coming under scrutiny.
Originally an investment by GrowCo Capital, the venture capitalist company run by Robertson and his father, EMist is now making airlines, educational facilities, Fortune 500 companies and even the Pentagon safer. COVID-19 is transmitted through the inhalation of droplets from a person who has the infection or by touching a surface that has contaminated droplets on it, then touching the mouth, nose or eyes; disinfecting those surfaces is the goal for Robertson and EMist.
EMist's electrostatic technology has been used extensively for years in the automotive and agricultural industries. When the liquid leaves the nozzle, it receives an electrostatic charge that causes the liquid to stick to and evenly coat a surface instead of accumulating and dripping.
In crop dusters and spray rigs, that means the product adheres not only to the tops of leaves but also underneath the leaves and around the stem, resulting in greater coverage with less product. EMist packs the same technology into handheld, backpack and rolling-cart systems made to quickly cover thousands of square feet in surface disinfectant in a short amount of time.
"This gives people a fighting chance to disinfect," Robertson said. "The messaging has not changed since the company's founding: We are here to help people live longer, healthier lives by providing solutions in the fight against the unnecessary spread of sickness and infections in our communities."
But when GrowCo Capital first invested in EMist, many people had trouble seeing its potential impact.
"I think it was a little ahead of its time," Robertson said. "Electrostatics were used to paint vehicles and in agricultural applications. For disinfection, it was a whole new road."
The inventor of the tool originally set out to create a handheld mister for his tomato plants in his greenhouse, but a local school principal reached out with a request for help. At the time, swine flu (H1N1) cases surged in their area of Central Texas, and the principal needed a way to quickly disinfect the school to not only prepare for the students' return but also every evening to prevent additional cases due to contamination of surfaces like desks and tables.
When presented with EMist and the opportunity to invest, Robertson quickly saw the need for the tool. Growing up, Robertson's father owned a medical supply company, so Robertson was familiar with the needs of the health care industry. He even began his undergraduate career at Texas Tech on a pre-med track. But after shadowing a doctor, Robertson switched to business and found his niche.
"I grew up in an entrepreneurial family," Robertson shared. "I just always had that desire to be in business with my dad."
In his final semester as a marketing and management undergraduate in spring 2006, Robertson took "Managing a Family Entrepreneurial Business," a course designed to create and launch a family business. In it, he created a business plan for a family-owned medical supply company. In March 2006, he and his father incorporated the name National HME, or Home Medical Equipment. In the months following his May 2006 graduation, the two launched the company using the business plan Robertson created in his class.
"I took the class very seriously and knew this could be something special if we ever decided to do it," he continued. "It was a big part of really pushing me to put into action a dream of mine. Thankfully, that dream turned into a reality."
A few years later, he faced another juncture: Should National HME "stay the course" and continue in Texas without outside help, or should it seek a partner in hopes of seeing exponential growth? At the time, Robertson had just begun coursework in the Jerry S. Rawls College of Business' Professional MBA program. Much like how the family entrepreneurial business course provided direction at a decision point in his life, Robertson happened to be in a course about expanding an existing business. He created a strategic plan in the class and used it to partner with a private equity firm and expand the company, which he sold several years later.
Growing and selling National HME allowed Robertson and his father to create GrowCo Capital. It also gave Robertson and his wife, Kristina, also a Texas Tech graduate, the opportunity to found Project 4031, a 501(c)(3) charity that financially assists terminally ill children and adults and helps them fulfill their last wishes.
EMist became one of GrowCo Capital's first investments. Soon thereafter, in September 2014, the country's first cases of the Ebola virus were diagnosed in Dallas. Officials hired a cleaning company to clean and disinfect the hospital and one of the apartment complexes of those infected, and the company selected EMist as the disinfectant application sprayer.
"The Ebola crisis certainly was nothing in comparison to what's happening today," Robertson said. "Even though disinfecting and cleanliness were top of mind for people, it was such a newer technology for disinfecting, we had an uphill battle. I was passionate about bringing this into the hospital setting because almost 100,000 people a year die of health care-acquired infections, or what they call HAIs."Robertson already had a passion for health care and invested in EMist, but when his mother had liver and kidney transplants in 2016 and nearly died from an infection acquired at a rehabilitation facility, his commitment to safer environments for public health deepened.
"One of the top 10 killers in our country is infections that are acquired while being treated in a hospital," Robertson said. "Thankfully, my mom didn't become one of those statistics. There are so many ways you can acquire an infection. Surface disinfection is just one part of that, but I think if there are better protocols in health care settings, in schools, in homes or businesses, then you're giving people a fighting chance to make sure every square inch of contaminated surfaces can be disinfected.
"If we can reduce infection rates," he added, "we can reduce death rates."
Robertson and the six members of the EMist team were preparing for the 2020 launch of their new handheld device when COVID-19 reached the United States. Less than a month later, EMist had scaled up to 35 employees, expanded its supply chains and established an e-commerce site to keep up with the new demand of the Texas-made tools.
The dramatic increase of sales included tools currently being used to disinfect United Airlines planes, the White House, the Pentagon, Fortune 500 companies and a handful of universities. Robertson said he is seeing a more mindful, thoughtful approach in infection prevention and control, and being able to help people when they are sick is what draws him to the health care field.
"If we play a small part of that, it's really meaningful," he said. "It's humbling to be a part of something we know is making a difference. Hopefully, it can have a bigger impact for the world on a global scale – not just for COVID, but for any kind of sickness. If we can reduce that, it would be great."
When asked what the future holds, Robertson said a smaller, consumer model EMist tool is on the way and, for a world after COVID-19, he anticipates heightened expectations by consumers for disinfecting the businesses and transit they use.
"They're going to want to know organizations did everything to make this environment safe and healthy," Robertson added.
In addition to his businesses and nonprofit, he and Kristina are parents to three boys. He also gives his time and efforts to Texas Tech through his work with Rawls Raiders, the Rawls College Advisory Council, and, with Kristina, establishing the Joshua and Kristina Robertson Family Scholarship Endowment.
"Those four years I was in school were a special time not only for learning, but also for finding my independence," Robertson explains. "Giving back is a simple solution. Life's too short not to make an impact on people's lives. Giving back to Texas Tech has been an easy decision."