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eCor Global helps contractors build green

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Local entrepreneur Bob Noble is busy with his latest company, eCor Global, which makes eco-friendly building panels from recycled materials. A factory to manufacture the panels recently opened in Barrio Logan.

Growing up in San Diego with a step-father who was a general contractor, Bob Noble remembers reading The Daily Transcript from a young age and learning about construction even before he understood what the word architect meant.

His step-father was head of the Association of General Contractors for a while, and built the high-rise jail downtown and other buildings for the University of California, San Diego.

When Noble became an architect, stepping into construction and design-build projects was a natural transition.

A serial entrepreneur, Noble left architecture firm Tucker Sadler where he was CEO in 2006 to form two innovative companies simultaneously — Envision Solar, famous for its aesthetically appealing solar trees that shade cars while charging them; and Noble Environmental Technologies, out of which emerged eCor Global, an eco-friendly panel product made completely out of recycled material that can be adapted for a variety of uses.

Having handed over the running of Envision Solar to a team, Noble remains the chairman but is now fully focused on eCor and recently set up a factory in Barrio Logan to manufacture the panels.

Noble's idea was to develop a highly versatile, three-dimensional engineered molded fiber panel product that can be made from readily available, under utilized, low-cost materials drawn from urban sources — like used paper and cardboard, agricultural sources and forest sources.

The 10,000-square-foot Barrio Logan facility taps paper, old newsprint and cardboard waste generated by the city of San Diego and other local sources.

"We love this urban model because cities need renovation and brown field redevelopment and that's where the work force is that also need the jobs," Noble said.

In Wisconsin, eCor has an exclusive license with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to produce the panels using farm material.

The panels come in different forms, from corrugated to honeycomb and flat panel, and are beginning to get traction in the market among interior designers, architects and industrial designers.

Google Inc. (Nasdaq: GOOG) uses the panels in its walls, ceilings and architectural elements found in its offices, and Noble said high profile customers like the search engine come through designers and architects who are the actual direct clients for eCor.

"We have a lot of friends who are always talking about us, which is really nice. We've had some media exposure. We’re becoming known among designers and architects. We’ve been to trade shows," said Noble, explaining how his company has generated so much buzz so quickly.

Beauty and functionality are inseparable parts of the company's DNA he said, which contributes part of its appeal.

"An important aspect of the appeal is having something customers have been looking for but haven't found yet, or did not know they wanted it but when they see it, they must have it," Noble said.

eCor products will compete in the market as a niche product rather than a mass-manufactured commodity panel item, and Noble said the niche is big enough to build a large company around it.

Noble has secured three rounds of funding, mostly from high-net worth individuals familiar with the furniture and materials industry, and is on track to ramp up production and go from 7 to about 30 employees in the next year or so.

The building and fabrication industry is not startup friendly, yet Noble has launched two companies and managed the choppy waters of the Great Recession.

Noble said coming by venture capital funding and other traditional sources of finance are tough, because this is not like the information technology or high-tech industries and is new stomping grounds for most investors.

"There is so much room for innovation and better products in the building products market, but the founder must take a very long view,” Noble said. “Whereas a tech entrepreneur can achieve significant funding, millions in sales and liquidity for investors within a few years of launch, it takes at least double the time in the building industry in the best of cases.”

He offered up some advice for other entrepreneurs in the industry: Use “forensic analysis” to sift market factors and focus on what's doable, instead of impractical attempts to go after markets or funding that won't happen.

Failure only happens if you surrender, often you're really close to succeeding when you quit.

A company should be mission-driven, not just focused on profit. Confidence in yourself and your product or service, the patience to weather slow times and the impatience that drives progress, mixed in with passion for what you're doing are all essentials, he said.

"Being committed to others' success is liberating,” Noble said. “I recall a very low day in late 2009 with one of my companies when it felt that the world was caving in on me. It felt as if I had run out of emotional reserve — no more reserve in the enthusiasm and energy account.”

He allowed this despair to spill over to others, and said it resulted in damage within a short period of time. But a call from a shareholder who believed strongly in the business renewed his hope.

In hiring his team, whom he credits with the company's success and progress, he focuses on recruiting people who are positive, good communicators, collaboration-minded, like solving complex problems, are patient with subordinates and won't break ranks when things get tough.

Noble expects sales will ramp up next year and is talking to partners outside the United States, including India, Switzerland and the Netherlands.

He is confident that the need for efficient, eco-friendly products that are engineering-friendly and represent elegant solutions will drive growth for eCor.

-Nagappan is a San Diego-based freelance writer.

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