Brinc Featured Founder Interview Series — Linh Le is the Founder of Flextrapower, (formerly Bonbouton) a remote monitoring company powered by graphene technology, a material with unique properties that creates groundbreaking biomedical applications.
We caught up with Linh recently to have a chat about his company’s rebranding and their Covid-19 solution, a graphene mask. Learn more about their patented graphene technology and how they were able to quickly innovate and enter a new market.
Flextrapower has developed a patented graphene technology. Can you explain how that began, what that is and why it is important?
I worked on graphene technology during my PhD at Stevens Institute of Technology after completing my Masters in Chemical Engineering at Columbia University. In 2016, I saw potential in how graphene could be beneficial, not only in academia, but also for consumers. Back then, the main funder for my academic research was the US Army; when working on the core technology to find the next generation material for energy storage applications, to be used by the Department of Defense. In 2016, I had two issued patents on the core technology of printing graphene on a variety of different substrates and I got bitten by the entrepreneur bug, with the inspiration to introduce those academic inventions into the world. I really wanted to see how people could experience all the great features of nanomaterials, in the form of consumer products because at that time, very few people knew about graphene.
So why is it important? While working with the US Army, they wanted to develop the next generation of supercapacitors and batteries, but they needed it to be very flexible and moldable for small, complex geometries. That’s why they were interested in graphene, which is one of the most flexible and thin materials known. Presenting the preliminary works at the Material Research Society in 2013, we were intrigued by how the audiences saw the potential in other applications, which would also benefit from the properties of graphene, such as clothing.
Your latest product is a reusable graphene mask. How was the decision made to develop this new line of product?
Just to be clear, we have not pivoted from our thermal insole product which is currently going through product development and clinical validation. In early March, we were working with several of our hospital partners for a clinical pilot around the US, but when Covid-19 hit, hospitals diverted their resources and funding in order to cope with the pandemic and all of the non-Covid-19 related clinical trials were put on hold. Now, six months later, they are talking about additional funding and resources to support different projects that are non-Covid-19 related. We predicted that the thermal insole project might be delayed, and at the same time we saw a huge PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) shortage from the hospital.
We consider hospitals to be really close partners, so I raised money from my network of friends and investors and donated close to 100,000 surgical masks to different hospitals in New York, Boston, and Los Angeles.
I realized that we could raise more money and buy more surgical masks for the hospitals, but the huge amount of disposable masks isn’t good for the planet. I pulled together my team and went back to the whiteboard. I shared that in a previous experiment during my PhD, I discovered that graphene has an antiviral property. We were using graphene as a sensing element in the thermal insole project, but now we could also use graphene as an antiviral agent.
We looked at the same material through a different lens and that’s how we were able to come up with the graphene masks very quickly. From the inception of the idea to the first batch of manufacturing, we did it within seven weeks.
How did you manage to prototype and test the mask so quickly?
The foundation our team has built with technical partners and investors played an important role. If this pandemic had happened five years earlier, we might not have been able to do this, but after several years of working with different investors and technological partners I was able to pull in all of the different resources.
Since most people are working from home during this time, people really needed to find a reason to align; within those seven weeks we were able to pull everyone together on this ambitious project, who all worked incredibly hard to make things happen. R&D and prototyping was done here in the U.S., while our team in Vietnam focused on logistics and supply chain management. The development was a world-wide effort.
Did you have any challenges when you were developing the masks? How were you able to get ahead of them?
Of course. It’s normal, right? I still have about 25 to 30 prototypes lying here in my apartment. The good thing is we made a decision to not position our masks as a medical product because we didn’t want to go through another FDA certification. We really wanted to see how we could bring the graphene masks to the market for consumers.
One of the biggest challenges has been logistics. Some of the core materials were sourced, developed, and shipped from the US to a factory in Vietnam. We had to figure out the best way to handle these logistics and once the product was made, we needed to distribute it to different regions around the world.
This is the first time I’ve had trouble with shipping logistics. Most of the time we do the shipment by air, but due to Covid-19, we had a lot of delays.. On top of that, we had problems with products getting stuck in Customs. It was a challenge but we definitely learned a lot from it.
Regarding the logistics issues, I advise people to get someone who is an expert to help you. I’m engaging with Brinc not only as someone in their portfolio, but as a partner. We are co-branding our graphene masks and Brinc is going to help with supply chain and logistics in Australia, MENA, and Hong Kong.
How can someone order your masks?
You can purchase individual masks directly on our website. For bulk orders, please fill out this form.
Flextrapower has recently gone through a rebrand from Bonbouton. You mentioned in your blog, that [Flextrapower] was the initial name of your company even before it was Bonbouton, can you tell us more about the decision behind that?
The original vision of Flextrapower is to realize the power of the graphene material which is flexible and transparent. That’s exactly how I named the company at the beginning. Initially, we didn’t know that we were going to be a technology-based company but I needed to file the company paperwork so we just went with Flextrapower. It was only my PhD advisor and me who came up with the name which was obviously very technical and tech savvy but at the time, I didn’t think much about the branding and how people would perceive it.
In December 2016, my former co-founder and I decided to change the name from Flextrapower to Bonbouton. The main reason was because we wanted to see if we could create a strong consumer brand. Bonbouton is a french word that means ‘lovely’ or ‘good’ button. At that time, we wanted to validate that we were able to integrate the graphene as a sensing platform into clothing, with one button to control everything else. The graphene platform acted as an interface between the body and the button that would collect information and provide insights. By 2017, we realized that we were struggling to match branding and product market fit.
Another pivot moment occurred in 2017 when we found some traction and early product market fit with our thermal sensing insole. We were okay with using the name Bonbouton for the insole product but then we found out earlier this year that the name wasn’t a good fit, especially for health and the larger vision of how we wanted to work with different customers.
Was the rebranding done in-house?
A little bit of both. I made the decision that the rebranding efforts should be done internally for the content.We hired two professional designers to do the visual rebranding, which included the new logo, colors, and website. I’d like to credit Chris Gorges of Thompson and Prints, along with Ash Dumford, for their support. It was a very fun process.
What important factors should influence your decision making when it comes to the brand?
The majority of the decision making process was done for the team. Rebranding isn’t just for the client. As a startup, what we want to bring to the world is important. In short, the team should feel proud to work for a company that will change the world. I realized that rebranding would not just be a reflection of my company’s vision to clients but would also give the team ambition and motivation.
You’ve come a long way since you joined our Brinc program. How did joining an accelerator help you?
For me, the benefit of joining an accelerator is to validate the product market fit. While in the Brinc accelerator program, we were working on the insole product. We wanted to validate whether the smart insole could be manufactured. At that time, we validated that it could be done in Asia, so that was our main focus in 2017 when we joined Brinc.
In 2019, we were also accepted into the MetLife Digital Accelerators powered by Techstars because we wanted to get into the insurance business with our insole. The good thing is MetLife is a global company, so even though we are working with MetLife in the US, we have received a lot of interest in other regions where there is a huge impact on diabetes such as in Mexico, Dubai, and Korea.
You have successfully received a lot of government grants. What advice would you give fellow founders when it comes to making the most out of government funding?
Yes, I think I’ve been pretty lucky during my career, having had training as a scientist and then as a scientist who wanted to commercialize the technology I was working on. It definitely comes as an advantage when applying for government grants. The best advice that I can give when applying for one is to find the program director that supports you as a founder. As I said, I am very lucky because in my experience, working at the National Science Foundation and National Institute of Health, I received tremendous support from the program manager and program director there. I reached out to them whenever I had an idea and kept them updated on our progress through email When they see that you are really persistent and are trying to do something good, it really makes a big difference. It took a long time to build a relationship with them, but at the end of the day, it paid off. For example, we received $1M USD just from government grants.
Finally, do you have any general tips or advice for first-time founders?
Number one — be persistent. I think whenever people talk to me they’re saying that I’m very persistent, crazily persistent in a stubborn way. Number two is as a founder we are pretty lonely because a lot of people don’t believe in what we are doing. But it’s okay to be lonely. It’s a part of life, our entrepreneurial life. What I realized is that I have a lot of partners to work with and that’s surely a privilege. It is a privilege to lean on partners such as Brinc, and to continue to build relationships with investors who can add value now or later on. Third point is to build a team of people around you as a founder that will compliment your weaknesses. For me, I can do a lot of talking in terms of vision, but when it comes to organizing the execution plan, I need to work with someone who will help me realize how realistic the plan is, because I always say “let’s do this and this and this within this amount of time” but usually it is unrealistic for the team to execute.
You can connect with Linh at firstname.lastname@example.org, or over on LinkedIn or Twitter. For more founder stories, check out Brinc’s blog.