For musician-turned-entrepreneur James Moseley, a simple tour of a friend’s aerospace company sparked the idea that would eventually turn into a business to protect homes and buildings from fire.
On that tour two years ago, Moseley got a look at heat-shielding technology used to protect spacecraft from burning up when they re-enter the atmosphere. The heat shields had to guard against temperatures of up to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
His mind immediately flashed to images he had seen on television of destructive wildfires in which flying embers hit nearby structures and set them ablaze.
“I thought to myself, What if I could use that technology to wrap around building beams or under roofs to act as a fire shield?” he said.
For Moseley, this opportunity came at the right time. Then 46, he had spent several years as a touring trombone player, mostly for late popular music pianist Roger Williams. But the touring gigs wound down, leaving Moseley looking to jump-start a second career.
So he made some inquiries and got in touch with the manufacturer of the spacecraft heat-shielding technology, Morgan Thermal Ceramics of Windsor, England, which agreed to supply it to him on an ongoing basis as a customer.
The technology is a coating that was originally used to cover the tiles on spacecraft. Mosely has adapted the coating so it can be applied to several different kinds of material, such as ceramic tiles, wood, steel and stucco. The coating can be sprayed on but it can be made into a wrapping material and used in the lining for fire tents.
Most such materials can help make buildings fire resistant only.
“These technologies don’t completely fireproof a building; rather, they withstand smaller incursions from embers or passing flames,” said George Broyles, fire project leader with the San Dimas Technology and Development Center of the U.S. Forest Service.
Broyles authored a Forest Service study two years ago that tested a dozen different types of fire shields; most withstood an open-flame test for two to three minutes before the underlying structures ignited.
That’s why Moseley was attracted to the Morgan material.
“The material has been tested in real-world circumstances for more than 10 minutes at temperatures approaching 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit upon atmospheric re-entry,” Moseley said. “It doesn’t burn.”
Today, Moseley said his Santa Monica company, Sunseeker, has seen sales exceed $1 million from Earthbound uses for his fire-shield technology and is positioning itself to compete for a major government contract that could propel it into the ranks of major players in the fire-protection materials industry.
Moseley sold his home and car to free up $250,000 to spend on adapting the technology – adding ingredients to allow it to adhere to wood and other materials instead of the titanium used on spacecraft – and getting certification from Underwriters Laboratories for the adaptations.
He has since used the technology to make three products: a fire-resistant wrap to protect structural beams; a spray coating that goes on roofs and external walls of homes and commercial buildings; and a shelter tent for firefighters intended to be more resistant than the ones that failed to protect the 19 firefighters who died in a wildfire last year near Yarnell, Ariz.
Last year, Sunseeker pulled in more than $1.2 million in revenue from sales of the fire wrap, mostly in Europe; this year, the company moved to Santa Monica from Valencia and Moseley said it was on track to reach roughly $3 million in revenue.
The business, which has six employees, is profitable, he said, though he’s reinvesting his income in research and development.
The biggest challenge, Moseley said, is raising the money to bring manufacturing in-house. Right now, he’s contracting with Anchor Industries of Evansville, Ind. “We want our own plant and machines so that we can turn around orders more quickly and customize them,” he said.
To reach his goal, Moseley is looking for angel financing and is planning to raise $150,000 over the next six months through a crowdfunding campaign (an earlier effort netted him $13,000) to bankroll a “consumer evacuation cloak” to shield people fleeing burning buildings, to help continue existing production and to compete for a Forest Service contract to replace the current generation of fire-shelter tents.
That contract, for at least 50,000 fire shelters, could run into the tens of millions of dollars. If he gets it, it would allow him to line up the financing to scale up production and turn his operation into a full-fledged business.
He’s also focusing on deploying his fire wraps and spray-on coatings. The fire wrap, or blanket, is placed around support beams by using Velcro fasteners and is designed to shield beams by absorbing heat. The coating, which contains zirconia and aluminum fibers, is sprayed on and hardens into a clear gel that can last up to three or four years. It costs about $4 to $5 a square foot; while it can be applied to an entire building exterior, it’s viewed as most effective on roofs and facades that face hillsides.
One early customer was Mark Miller, principal of Jomar Construction in Los Angeles. Miller and Moseley initially discussed using the fire wrap around beams for the rebuilding of the Malibu Castle home that burned down in 2007. But that project was postponed, so Miller decided to try the fire spray on another project he was working on near Century City.
“I was intrigued because there are so few products out there that effectively protect against flying embers,” Miller said. “What’s more, it’s so easy to apply; the only thing you have to watch out for is to apply it evenly across the surface.”
Miller said that now he’s tested the spray out, he looks forward to using the spray on future projects, especially in hillside burn zones.
One homeowner in one of these high-risk burn areas is Lou Rawls Jr., the son of the famed singer-entertainer and a longtime family friend of Moseley. Rawls asked Mosely to apply the spray to his Porter Ranch home.
“Living out here, I’m always very concerned about wildfires. So when I heard about the fire spray, I immediately said I wanted to put it on my house,” Rawls said.
It took about six hours for three workmen to spray the coating on the entire exterior of Rawls’ 2,700-square-foot home, he said, as well as some of the adjacent gates and fences, at a cost of about $15,000. One advantage, Rawls noted, is that the coating is a clear resin that is barely noticeable.
Of course, while all of Sunseeker’s products have been tested in the laboratory and simulations, so far, they have not been tested in a real-world fire. Nonetheless, Rawls said the coating has given him some piece of mind. And he’s even hoping that his homeowner’s insurance carrier will look at the new technology and eventually give him a break on his premium.
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