Joe Howard, a Pittsburgh native with an MBA and a sales and marketing background in specialty steels and ketchup, isn't a flashy guy. But he sure has a flair for magic.
From his black shopping bag of tricks, he pulled a beaker filled with 100 milliliters of water, a clear-plastic drinking cup, and a gallon-size food storage bag containing 1 gram of superabsorbent particles that look like sand, but aren't.
Howard poured them and the water into the cup, swirled it, and turned it upside down. Not one drop fell from the cup, its contents transformed to a solid similar to slime in less than six seconds.
"I told you it was really cool," the president and chief executive of Advanced Absorbent Technologies LLC said, pleased with his performance. "That's why we don't need wood pulp."
For absorbing urine, that is.
Without wood pulp, a common ingredient in diapers, the five-year-old start-up believes it has developed the most dignified underwear for adults coping with incontinence — and even long-distance runners and postpartum mothers — in an absorbent-wear industry dominated by big corporations such as Kimberly-Clark and Procter & Gamble.
"We truly believe this is a paradigm shift in the category," Howard said.
The dignity that Advanced Absorbent affords, he says, comes from how thin and flexible its Alyne brand underwear for women and men is without bulky, moisture-retaining wood-pulp filler. Testing has shown absorbency is not sacrificed with the less-cumbersome design, Howard said.
"It's not the most glamorous of categories, but it's one of the most important ones," said the 62-year-old resident of Glenmoore, Chester County, who has formed Advanced Absorbent with two former colleagues in the vast industry of disposable absorbent products, including sanitary napkins, baby diapers and pull-ups, and adult underwear.
Adult protective underwear is big business, estimated at $2 billion in the U.S.; $9 billion worldwide, with a virtually guaranteed robust market for years to come, thanks in part to the huge sector of baby boomers, the oldest of whom turn 72 this year; the youngest, 54.
"If we're lucky enough to live long, we're all going to be customers," said Mark de Grandpre, 61, director of investments for physical sciences at Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Southeastern Pennsylvania. It has invested in Advanced Absorbent with a $400,000 convertible loan, believing it has "a really innovative product in a field that hasn't seen much innovation," de Grandpre said.
He acknowledged a sizable challenge: "These guys are going head-to-head with some of the largest consumer-products companies. That's a daunting task."
With more than $3 million in funding and soon making its market debut on Walmart.com, Advanced Absorbent believes it's up to the challenge.
The key to its effectiveness is in the design — a number of layers, each having different speeds of absorbency, Howard said. Each Alyne underpant is designed to hold two full bladders — which totals about 500 to 600 milliliters in healthy bladders. One Alyne layer has the material that provided the "wow" factor in Howard's "magic trick," a demonstration he conducted at Ben Franklin's offices at the Philadelphia Navy Yard for the benefit of a reporter and photographer for the Inquirer, Daily News, and Philly.com.
That material has been used in another industry, but Howard wouldn't say which one on the record.
"I don't want to make it too easy for my competitors to know what we are doing and where to find it," he said.
A lot of effort has gone into arriving at the secret formula behind Alyne wear — and protecting that information.
"After hundreds and hundreds of experiments, we found it works one way and that's the way we patented it," said Don Sheldon, Advanced Absorbent's chief technology officer and a principal. Two patents have been secured, and four more are pending, said Sheldon, a Philadelphia native now living in North Carolina, where the company's contract manufacturer is located.
Advanced Absorbent's other founder is Bill Terenzoni, chief procurement officer, of Jamison, Bucks County.
Howard, Sheldon, and Terenzoni last worked together in 2008 at what was Covidien Healthcare, specializing in absorbent consumer products. They went their separate ways after the sale of their division to a competitor.
Their decision to start a business followed a lunch reunion in late 2012/early 2013.
"We were talking about we haven't seen any innovation in the category," Sheldon recalled in a recent telephone interview. "It was the same old, same old."
By that, he meant shredded tissue mixed with a superabsorbent polymer. The recipe has been around since the dawn of the space program to accommodate astronauts with no access to flush toilets, Sheldon said.
Soon after that lunch, the three were experimenting with all sorts of products in a basement kitchen in what was then Sheldon's house in Eagleville, Chester County — sparse accommodations compared with the generous resources they had been used to in the corporate world. For Howard, that included the steel industry and what is now the Kraft Heinz Co.
"We had to find the right materials and the right samples," he said. "This was just three guys."
Three guys "at an age where people think about doing something else," said Ben Franklin's de Grandpre.
Beyond their ideas for a less obvious yet effective underwear, what appealed to de Grandpre and others at Ben Franklin, he said, were their energy, passion, and openness to coaching.
"It's just a great team of people who work well together," said de Grandpre, who is now an adviser to Advanced Absorbent.
With essentially no advertising budgets, small businesses rely on the internet to gain market traction. Advanced Absorbent will be no different. It has hired Buzz Marketing Group in Haddonfield, a 22-year-old firm that markets itself as an agency for "clients focused on millennials, moms, and multicultural consumers."
Tina Wells, its CEO and founder, said she is "intrigued" by Advanced Absorbent's focus on helping consumers with incontinence maintain their dignity.
"It's so consumercentric, which is what a lot of millennial-focused companies are like," Wells said. The consumer group that Advanced Absorbent wants to serve is an engaged one, she said. For example, her agency has found Facebook groups about incontinence, some with millions of members.
"We discovered people are finding community where they can have real, honest conversation," Wells said. Helping Advanced Absorbent reach such groups through search-engine optimization and other social-media tools will be essential to getting its Alyne brand worn, Wells said. So will establishing retail partnerships, she said.
Although pricing has not yet been finalized, Howard said it will be in line with that of products currently on the market: $13.99 for 13 to 17 garments; $19.99 for 22 to 28. The company projects $2 million in sales this year, reaching $60 million to $70 million within five years.
"We're confident when people try our product, we'll create loyalty," Howard said.