September 08. 2018 11:12PM

Mike Cote's Business Editor's Notebook: This entrepreneur took a flyer, and reached Jupiter

By MIKE COTE


Peter Antoinette, who co-founded Nanocomp Technologies in Lebanon, now works as a Nashua-based consultant helping startups navigate government regulations. He is shown here at Riverwalk Cafe in downtown Nashua on Sept. 5. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

The sale of Nanocomp Technologies to Huntsman Corp. in March seemed like a natural progression. Over nearly 15 years, Nanocomp grew from a couple of people working out of a small office in Lebanon to 70 employees ramping up the production of carbon nanotubes in an industrial space in Merrimack.

Spend some time with Peter Antoinette, who co-founded the company in 2004, and you'll get a different picture, one that underscores how much entrepreneurial success depends on hard work, tenacity, chance and sacrifice.

To help get the company started, Antoinette took out a second mortgage, signed up for every credit card application that came his way and didn't take a salary for two years.

These days, he can measure the company's impact by looking to the stars.

"Nanocomp products are protecting a $2 billion NASA spacecraft that is orbiting Jupiter," Antoinette said during a recent interview at the Riverwalk Cafe in Nashua. "It protected its main engines to let it get into orbit, and it's protecting its attitude-control thrusters that lets it point the right way."

Antoinette led Nanocomp as president and CEO until July 2017, when its investors chose new leadership that ultimately led to the sale. He remained on the Nanocomp's board until the Huntsman deal and now spends his time as a consultant working with tech startups.

"I'm working the same kind of things I did with Nanocomp and other companies in how to introduce technology to customers," said Antoinette, 65. "With the success we got in (Department of Defense) and government relations, I've been trying to help other companies that are interested in doing those types of things."

Companies outside New Hampshire usually don't have the kind of access to government leaders Antoinette enjoyed while leading Nanocomp. Over the years, he has worked with the state's congressional delegation and governors.

"You can get some rather unique interactions with federal folks out of New Hampshire and our delegation," Antoinette said. "Just now around the corner, and I was sitting there ordering my coffee, Annie Kuster wanders up and she's ordering her coffee. We start chit-chatting. Where do you find that elsewhere?"

Antoinette was born in New York City and raised in New Jersey. He moved to Massachusetts to take a position as product manager for Millipore Corp. After leaving that company in the mid-'90s, he moved to Nashua, where he lives with his wife, Ellen.

Road trip in a rental car

Nanocomp's story began with the work of David Lashmore, a scientist who devised a method to create long carbon nanotubes while doing work for Synergy Innovations, a company led by serial entrepreneur Robert Dean. Antoinette convinced them to raise money to spin off the technology, leading to a road trip in a rental car to Washington, D.C.

"We had to drive back because I didn't have enough money on the credit card to pay for a hotel," Antoinette recalled. "We hit the diners in southern Jersey off the turnpike and after lots of coffee, got back home 24 hours later, it felt like. We were successful in raising money."

In 2005, Nanocomp won top honors in the Start-Up NH Business Plan competition, taking home $130,000 as the overall winner and $30,000 in the manufacturing category. But it would be several months before underwriter Public Service of New Hampshire released the money. While waiting for the check to arrive, Antoinette scrambled to keep his family and the company afloat.

"I did this on the total comp, with my wife working at night baking and cooking, delivering products," he said. "I'm pretty good with my hands so I was doing home remodeling in the mornings and fundraising and company management in midday and the afternoons."

Meanwhile, Antoinette tried to leverage the company's award, talking with local investors.

"And then we got a phone call. We had been talking to the U.S. Army about the use of the technology for body armor," Antoinette said.

That call - and many sleepless nights writing and rewriting a funding proposal with his colleagues - led to a $2.5 million federal contract and funding from investors. And Nanocomp was on its way.

Ultimately, the company would secure $25 million in government contracts.

"More than 80 percent went into the local economy," Antoinette said. "Nanocomp didn't take those funds. It went into more than 100 contractors or subcontractors. I calculated that we had close to 1,000 tradespeople that benefited, and this is during the time of the recession so we got it right when the big recession was going on. So it made a big positive impact."

Antoinette has high hopes for Nanocomp's future with Huntsman Corp., a chemical manufacturer based in Texas.

"There's no reason it can't be a billion-dollar division of Huntsman with the right capital to scale the technology," he said. "The amount of market that's available and what it can do technologically from lightweighting composites, electrical conductivity, shielding - it has all the breadth of application aluminum has. But not being a metal, it can be a fabric. It can be a carbon fiber that you can tie in a knot."

Antoinette credits his former team for the company's success and is happy some of them continue to develop the company's technology. It's a path that has had many twist and turns since those early days in Lebanon.

"You have to be able to take advantage of things that change direction, and at the same time be open enough to change direction when you don't really know a precise path forward," he said.

Contact Business Editor Mike Cote at 206-7724 or mcote@unionleader.com.