Chromatic Technologies Inc. is far from a household name, but it’s well on its way to becoming a household presence.
In your refrigerator, for instance, you might find CTI’s most famous creation: the color-changing mountains on Coors Light beer cans. While Coors was the company’s home run, CTI’s color-changing inks appear on all sorts of products, including receipts and prescription pads (as security features), on coffee cups and CD covers, battery testers and business cards. It’s even applying its dye expertise to cancer research.
Despite the endless potential applications, said Lyle Small, CTI’s founder and president, the company’s focus for now is on the beverage market.
“The potential for taking your eye off the ball is always there,” he said. “We are going to make a success out of beverage. This is a huge, worldwide opportunity for us.”That approach seems to be working. Over the past three years, Chromatic Technologies has seen 120 percent yearly growth, said Jeff Garl, CTI’s chief financial officer. The forecast for this year is only 50 percent growth, but that’s conservative, Garl said.
Earlier this year, CTI relocated to a 25,000-square-foot facility on Elkton Drive, and its work force has nearly doubled in recent years to about 35 employees.
“I think it speaks a great deal to our customers’ desire to differentiate their brand,” Garl said.“Most of our customers are willing to spend quite a bit of money to develop that unique brand.”
Duncan Stewart, president and CEO of the Colorado Springs Technology Incubator, said Chromatic Technologies is an example of the kind of manufacturing that can thrive in the Pikes Peak region: It’s high-skill manufacturing, rather than labor-intensive production, and the finished product depends on strongly protected intellectual property that can’t easily be duplicated elsewhere.
“I think they’re one of the most exciting stories in Colorado Springs,” Stewart said. “It’s a great niche for them. They can get as big as they want.”
Chromatic and its customers are only beginning to explore the potential uses for temperature-sensitive, color-changing inks, said Rob Ugianskis, CTI’s vice president of operations.
“We would love to see the day when every milk bottle, Pepsi bottle, Gatorade bottle on Earth has a temperature reading on it,” Ugianskis said. “That would be our ultimate goal.”
Again, Small said, the real challenge is often in knowing what opportunities not to pursue.
“We will get a call at least twice a week from someone who wants to paint their car in thermochromic ink,” he said. “Right now, we have plenty to do without chasing everyone that has an idea. There’s thousands of great ideas.”
The company has a half-dozen researchers who work full time developing better inks and new applications. There is a laboratory in the heart of CTI’s Colorado Springs plant, complete with bubbling cauldrons and lab-coated technicians stirring mysterious concoctions.
“We spend a lot of time in places like this,” Ugianskis said. “A lot of it is what you see here: hands-on.”
All of the company’s ink is made in the Colorado Springs plant. Even for huge customers like Coors, Ugianskis said, the color-changing ink tends to be a fairly small part of the whole label.
“It tends to be for effect, not volume,” he said.
Manufacturing ink seems hopelessly old-fashioned in this digital age, but CTI’s inks are high-tech products, Ugianskis said.
“Most people don’t give a second thought to where the inks on the newspaper in the morning come from or how they were manufactured,” Ugianskis said. “If you’re making newspaper ink, you’re making something that’s very utilitarian.
“Our product is very interactive, it’s exciting. It can create conversation, it can create interest.”
Small started the company in his college dorm room at Cornell University, working on color-changing T-shirts and, later, color-changing receipt tape. It took nearly a decade before the company developed the techniques and technology to establish itself.
Small moved the company to Colorado Springs in 1996, attracted by its business-friendly economic climate and its outdoor opportunities.
Chromatic worked with overseas brewers for several years before convincing MillerCoors that the technology was ready for prime time. In 2008, CTI and MillerCoors signed a two-year licensing agreement.
Now, CTI is working with other brewers, including Anheuser-Busch, and keeping an eye on the future with projects like the cancer technology, which involves a new way to target cancer cells, and a new approach to security that could someday match the success of those blue mountains on an ice-cold can of beer.
“We are driven in beverage, but we will have a certain number of projects at all times that can be game-changers that still fit within our core competence,” Small said.—Call the writer at 636-0275.