Originally from Long Island, NY, Scott Lewit, president and co-founder of Structural Composites, made his way down to the Sunshine State in the early 1980s to study Ocean Engineering at The Florida Institute of Technology. Towards the end of Lewit's program, he took a course in Ocean Data Processing with a new professor, Dr. Ronnal Reichard. The two formed a strong connection and Reichard encouraged Lewit to pursue his graduate degree in Ocean Engineering. At the time, composites and different materials were coming out of the aerospace industry and being reformulated for the marine industry. Reichard began to explore the possibilities for different applications. After Lewit worked for a Navy defense contractor for two years after graduating from Florida Tech, Lewit and Reichard were reunited and, in December of 1987, Structural Composites was born.
From startup to second-stage
"Muammar Gaddafi was becoming more active, which prompted a need to get some underwater vehicles ready for a mission," Lewit said. "This was basically the start of special warfare. At the time, the work was much underfunded, but both Ron and I realized this could be a new opportunity. The Navy gave us a contract to redesign underwater boats. We started in what was basically a pole barn in the backfields of the Florida Tech campus. It was an incubator type setup before incubators became a thing. Once we got established, we aggressively went after funding and just kept growing the business. By 1991, business was good enough to allow us to move out of Florida Tech and into our own place."
As Lewit and Reichard grew the business, they realized how volatile the funding was from the Navy contract. They decided it was time to start commercializing some of their own technologies and, in 1992, they formed Compsys, Inc. to focus on manufacturing their own products. By late 1994, the decision to become a manufacturer paid off. Lewit and Reichard rolled out an invention called PRISMA, which Lewit describes as the "Lego of composites". The timing couldn't have been better. The boating industry was transitioning out of using Freon as a blowing agent for foam. PRISMA represented a much better alternative. In 1995, they landed a contract with Sea Ray, a major boat manufacturer, which resulted in a 50% reduction in the weight of their boats. As Lewit explained, this represented a major milestone for the company.
Developing new technologies
"This really opened people's eyes to the possibilities of composites," he said. "Both Compsys and Structural Composites were growing. We got an industrial bond and built a 40,000 square foot building. We started licensing our technology to Brunswick Corporation. We hit our peak in 2005 with about 100 employees. We were growing really fast and managing that growth was our biggest challenge. In late 2006 and early 2007, things started to wind down a bit. We were considering expanding into North Carolina and then 2008 and 2009 arrived. The recession hit us with such force that we lost 80% of our sales. It was tough, but we knuckled in and got good advice to keep paying our bank loan, which we did. We cashed out some retirement investments and did what we had to do to keep things moving forward."
In August of 2008, an unlikely blessing came in the form of Tropical Storm Faye. The property flooded and, as a result, Structural Composites was eligible for disaster relief. Lewit and Reichard were able to get a loan when no one else was loaning money. After the workforce dropped to about a half dozen people, Lewit shared that if it wasn't for that loan, they might not have made it. Moving forward, Lewit had a plan to dig themselves out of the recession.
"We decided to handle our customers very differently than some of the bigger companies," he said. "We had 20 year relationships with them and, while the bigger companies were sending out creditors, we made the decision to work out individual arrangements with each company. We had Navy and theme park work, but in late 2009, we won a new Navy SBIR contract for combatant craft. That was a big win at the time."
Keeping a competitive edge
For the next nine years, more contract wins, technological advancements and patents would propel Structural Composites into the composite spotlight. Phase 1 wins would turn into Phase 2, and eventually, multi-million dollar Phase 3 wins, that would allow Lewit and team to keep their data and contract rights. Funding dollars would go back into R&D as Structural Composites worked to secure new contracts and develop advanced solutions for various industries. Lewit explained one such solution that led to a substantial partnership.
"Wabash, manufacturers of semi-truck trailers, invested in us because of our Co-Cure technology," he said. "Co-Cure blends polyurethane and polyester to produce a high performance resin at a very low cost. We also secured a partnership with Interplastic Corporation because of this technology. Right now, composites only represent about 4% penetration into the transportation industry. That alone is five times the size of the marine market. There's a lot of potential. Our mission is to convert Wabash completely to composites."
Structural Composites is a technology-driven company run by innovators not, as Lewit pointed out, by accountants. Their business approach is very pro-innovation and they rely on small business agility, free thinking and the ability to freely take risks to push the envelope. Powered by a workforce of approximately 80 employees, Structural Composites and Compsys each has their own unique culture. Lewit described Structural Composites as more free flowing, flexible and a culture akin to what you'd expect in an R&D company. Compsys is much more focused on manufacturing and, as such, represents a more structured and disciplined machine.
Both entities contribute a fair share to philanthropic activities and community involvement. Lewit currently serves on the Manufacturing Council for the Economic Development Commission of Florida’s Space Coast. He's also Chairman of the Board for Energy Florida, an industry-led 501c(3) non-profit association building unique energy-related advanced manufacturing and technology demonstration capabilities that support economic development across the state of Florida, the Southeastern US and in Latin America and the Caribbean. Structural Composites has an internship program with Florida Tech and also supports funded research at the school.
What it means to be a Florida Companies to Watch Honoree
"It's wonderful to be recognized," he said. "Out of the tens of thousands of companies in Florida, to be in this group is a great recognition and honor. It helps us stand out. With this award and others, I'm pretty prolific in turning these things into press releases. It reminds people of us and often turns into a reply with folks wanting to collaborate on something. This recognition is one of the many building blocks that help us grow.
In terms of why we were recognized, we're not the biggest company, but I think it has to do with our ability to impact the broader market with our technology. Our business model allows us to be bigger than we are. Similar to how NASA invented GPS and now that technology is enjoyed everywhere, we're the company that invented Co-Cure, a technology that will show up on boats everywhere in a few years. Much of that can be attributed to a program that Florida did back in the 2012 time frame. It's basically an SBIR enhancement program that allowed us to go after state funds that could be used for research, design, patent work and commercialization. That was critical for the invention of Co-Cure. We couldn't have done it without that grant. The Institute for Commercialization of Florida Technology and the EDC of Florida's Space Coast are also two groups that have supported us along the way."
Looking ahead, Lewit is cautiously optimistic about future growth, but due to tariffs on material imports and his previous experience during the recession, he's not jumping into anything, such as a new facility, too quickly. The focus is more on securing additional partners like Wabash. They're targeting automotive tier 1 companies, the space defense sector and the infrastructure industry for new partnerships. Using a technology sharing model, where Structural Composites sees the benefits of royalty streams and initial equity investments, they want to be a ready R&D partner for incoming companies. In ten years, Lewit hopes to be the "Qualcomm of composites" with royalties in the $5 to $10 Million range and a business that impacts the entire supply chain.
Advice for aspiring entrepreneurs
What advice does Lewit have for aspiring entrepreneurs? "What we always did was to springboard ourselves off of something else," he said. "If you follow the story, we incubated ourselves at FL Tech to mitigate some risk, then we got big enough to get our own place, then we grew Compsys within Structural Composites until it exploded. One thing you can't control is timing for when your idea will be matured and accepted. You need tenacity. So many companies are a flash in the pan. You need to have that core support that's going to keep you alive until your innovation takes off. That may be your day job or doing things you don't love. Ultimately, if you think you can do it and it's remotely in your sandbox, then do it. Keep in mind, if you do it, you'll need to find a way to 'turn the risks off in your head'. You have to be able to sleep at night knowing you could potentially lose it all. Not many people can do that."
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