‘Off-the-shelf wetlands’ firm poised for worldwide growth

SHEPHERD — Since founding Floating Island International 12 years ago, Bruce Kania has achieved a lot of milestones.

More than 7,000 of his man-made islands — he likes to call them “off-the-shelf wetlands” — have been sold around the world. He holds “a couple dozen” patents related to the floating island technology and he has six licensed manufacturers — three in the United States and one each in China, New Zealand the United Kingdom — making his patented BioHaven-brand islands.

The islands are used mainly for removing nutrients from water, so most of them are in water-treatment operations and other settings where the goal is to extract pollutants from water. But they are also in wide use for increasing the productivity of fisheries, protecting shorelines and levees, and creating habitat for threatened species of birds.

But all that work and all those successes, in Kania’s view, was only setting the stage for what comes next. He and his wife, Anne Kania, previously did most of the work of operating and expanding Floating Island International.

Now, having brought on experts in global marketing and business development, Kania believes his company is at a tipping point, “on the verge of exponential growth.” That wording comes from the executive summary of a recent annual report for Floating Island International.

Kania, whose business is headquartered a few miles outside of Shepherd on 340 acres thick with wetlands, demonstration ponds and an abundance of fish, fowl, insects, amphibians and mammals, said “this concept of off-the-shelf wetlands is really taking off,” and “we really feel like we’re the best people in the country to advance that technology.”

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Hence the shift from being a technology-driven company to one driven by marketing, with plans to capitalize on all of its technical expertise, its international relationships and its lab- and field-tested technology.

“If our vision is correct and we succeed,” Kania said, “it’s the launch of a new industry, right here in Shepherd.”

The BioHaven floating islands developed by Kania, made from recycled plastic bottles, are designed to encourage the proliferation of microbes, in the form of biofilm, the slimy stuff that adheres to rocks. Microbes break down nutrients and pollutants in water, including the nitrogen and phosphorous found in residential wastewater and agricultural runoff.

The plastic matrix alone encourages the production of biofilm, but when the islands are planted with native vegetation, the production of life skyrockets. The natural-looking islands, which can be anchored or tethered in place, soon become prime habitat for insects, birds and animals. The real work takes place underwater, where the biofilm abounds.

There, according to a description on the Floating Island International website, “nutrients circulating in the water come into contact with these biofilms and are consumed by them, while a smaller fraction is taken up by plant roots. Suspended solids slough off into the benthic zone below the island. Organic solids stick to the biofilms and become the base of the freshwater food web.”

Moonlight

Floating Island International

Floating islands made in Shepherd dot a water treatment lagoon at Moonlight Basin near Big Sky.

Among the 7,000 floating islands sold over the past 12 years, some were as small as a few square feet; the biggest, which is in use on Lake Rotorua in New Zealand, encompasses 51,000 square feet.

Kania engineered a shift in the direction of the company about a year and a half ago, when he hired Rhyno Stinchfield, of Billings, as FII’s director of global business development. At Stinchfield’s suggestion, the Kanias then hired Wendy Davidoff as their director of global marketing.

Stinchfield said he and Davidoff used to work together for Quad Lock, a Canadian maker of insulating concrete building forms, and Davidoff had also managed multimillion-dollar budgets for several high-tech companies. Just about a year ago, Stinchfield and Davidoff, who lives in Vancouver, B.C., spent three full days with the Kanias at their home near Shepherd, laying the groundwork for the company’s expansion.

One result, Kania said, is that FII did 10 times more business this year than last, including the launch of 41 islands for the Ministry of the Environment in Ecuador this summer, and with several big project in Peru in the works.

They also made the decision to start standardizing the islands, producing them in uniform 100-square-foot pieces that can be combined to create islands of any size. The change was crucial, Stinchfield said, because the islands used to be custom-made for each project, with no two projects using islands of the same size.

That made it difficult to calculate results and to determine what size islands were needed for a particular project. Now, they have verifiable data for 100-square-foot islands, so they can quickly tell a client how they will perform and how many are needed for each project or body of water.

After more than a decade of third-party testing of the BioHaven floating islands, Stinchfield said, they don’t have to spend much time convincing people of the product’s efficacy.

Core

Floating Island International

The core team at Floating Island International is made up of, from left, Anne Kania, Bruce Kania, Wendy Davidoff and Rhyno Stinchfield.

All over the world, people who manage water systems “are embracing the concept of biomimicry that we’re offering,” he said. “It has become very accepted.”

Another change is that FII’s larger, more specialized team can offer marketing and business development assistance to its licensed manufacturers. It used to be that FII would provide training and license companies to go into production, but after that they were on their own.

“We had no control over the process,” said Anne Kania, who is the company’s vice president.

In addition to hiring Stinchfield and Davidoff, FII also has two consulting engineers, Frank Stewart of Bozeman and Mark Reinsel of Missoula. Floating Island International is also in the processing of raising money through conventional financing and some limited investment opportunities, with plans to hire three more people as soon as possible.

One of those hires will be a director of sales, Stinchfield said. They need someone just to handle all the leads that come in directly, mostly through the company’s website. Each project seems to bring in a few more prospects, as more people hear about the company and its unique products.

One project in Iowa turned into a total of five in that state just in the past year, Stinchfield said.

Each one of its licensees operates in a specific area, Kania said, and most of the world is still unlicensed. They want to develop as much territory as they can, acting as a master distributor. And with all the patents Kania holds, they expect to be able to dominate the industry for another 20 years.

The company had $500,000 in direct sales in the past year, Kania said, and more than $5 million in sales if you include its licensed distributors.  Within a couple of years, he said, the goal is to have $40 million to $50 million worth of projects in the pipeline.

Licensing was a key to the company’s early growth, Kania said, because Montana’s remoteness made it hard to ship floating islands out of Shepherd.

“On the other hand,” he said, “it’s a great place to have a think tank.”

Stinchfield said potential clients and licensees, as well as people who come to Shepherd for training, are usually quite pleased to have an opportunity to see Montana, and they often bring their families to make a vacation of it. Every distributor needs at least one “island master,” as they call them, and over the years Kania has given island-master training to people from 45 countries.

The Shepherd site will remain the training center, and because its ponds, lakes and other wetlands have been around so long, with so many visible results, it will also remain the place where the company can show off its wares and its accumulated expertise.

“We have a promising demonstration site,” Kania said, “which is another thing that puts Montana on the map.”

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