The Faces of Entrepreneurship: Brian Joseph, Touchstone Research Laboratory
Issue:Winter 2015 : Articles
Brian Joseph is one of those rare individuals who grew up to do just what he dreamed of doing as a child. “I had a laboratory in the basement, which the rest of the family called the furnace room,” said Joseph, the owner of Touchstone Research Laboratory in Wheeling. “My dream was to invent things, and that’s where we are today.”
Joseph is an ardent entrepreneur whose faith in his endeavor got him through the early lean years. The company now employs about 40 people at its facility in Wheeling. By design, the company does many things, including research and development, failure analysis, and materials testing.
“The goal of Touchstone from the beginning has been to do creative things,” Joseph said. “I intentionally built a research facility without a particular central focus.” Though lacking focus, the company has a “bias” toward material science, he said.
“Most things in life fail because of a material that’s not doing what we want it to do,” he said. “If you want to do creative things, material science is not a bad place to begin.”
Joseph grew up in Wheeling and studied biology and physics at West Liberty University. From there he attended Ohio State University where he studied biophysics before returning to Wheeling. In 1980, he bought a used electron microscope for $100 and rebuilt it in the basement of an old monastery.
“I started my business by going around and saying, ‘I’ll help you solve your manufacturing problems,’ and the business grew from there.” Eventually, Touchstone took over research for Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Corp. and became the prime research facility for Ravenswood Aluminum, now known as Constellium.
In the 1990s, Joseph’s company began participating in the federal Small Business Innovation Research program and applying for patents at a steady pace. The company has invented a variety of products, from new aluminum alloys to equipment that tells farmers the best day to pick lettuce in southern California.
One of the company’s most important products is CFOAM®, a carbon foam material made of coal that is lightweight, fireresistant and impact-absorbing. CFOAM can be fabricated into variety of shapes and sizes for different uses, including molds for airplane parts. This focus is now a major part of Touchstone’s business: manufacturing CFOAM and molds for airplane parts.
“We’re expanding those businesses as fast as we can. We hired two more people this week,” he said.
A key factor in Touchstone’s success has been the workforce. In the Northern Panhandle, Joseph taps a pool of individuals who know how to make things – which is not the case in many parts of the country, he said.
“I can turn around and say, we need to build something like this, and there are about 20 people who can build it.”
Over the years, he also has sought the assistance of the Robert C. Byrd Institute for Advanced Flexible Manufacturing (RCBI), leasing time on its advanced machinery, including a 5-axis mill and an autoclave. He has since bought his own computer-controlled machines to expand his manufacturing operations.
“We are on our way to making an enormous impact,” he said. “I think you are going to see some pretty amazing things happen over the next three or four years.”
His advice to others who want to become entrepreneurs?
Learn to communicate. Rely on public relations – not traditional advertising – when launching a new product and learn to assess and tackle your own weaknesses. Most importantly, resist giving up when times get tough.
“Most entrepreneurs fail because they quit, not because they can’t succeed. I’m a big believer in that,” he said. “There are good times and bad times in business and most people who fail go, ‘It’s getting too hard. I could go get a job if I’m going to work this hard.’ It took me 10 years to get beyond a poverty-level income in this business, but I never failed. You only fail when you give up. By the 11th year, this place just took off, and it’s been a wonderful ride ever since.”