NEWTON - From a nondescript building practically hidden at the end of a cul-de-sac in a Newton industrial park, Halo Maritime Defense Systems is building a business based on homeland security that could have trickle-down benefits throughout the state's manufacturing sector.
And they moved here last month from Massachusetts to make it happen.
The company had been operating since 2008 out of offices in Andover, Mass., developing a barrier designed to protect ships in harbor from terrorist attacks.
"It's designed to stop a 3-ton speedboat going 54 miles per hour (47 knots) in four-tenths of a second with the barrier unbreached," said company CEO Paul C. Jensen from his modest office in the 8,000-square-foot building that now serves as Halo headquarters.
During the years of development, Jensen and other company founders worked from Regus Ready to Go office space in Andover, Mass. But as the company grew, and the time came to move the project from PowerPoint to prototype, they began to look for a more permanent location.
Halo already had a New Hampshire connection, thanks to the Judd Gregg Marine Research Complex, located on New Castle island and operated by the University of New Hampshire Marine Program. Much of the development work took place there, and a graduate student from the program was one of the company's earliest hires.
Working with Michael Bergeron, business development manager with the New Hampshire Division of Economic Development, Jensen found the perfect shell of a two-story building off Route 108 in Newton, near Ravensburger Puzzle on Puzzle Lane.
The interior was built to Halo specifications, and includes offices and a hangar-sized assembly and testing area on the first floor, with space for expansion on the second floor.
"We are now all under one roof, and we have the space we need to bring this to market," Jensen said. The proximity to UNH, lower taxes, the availability of "best-in-class" subcontractors and the New Hampshire quality of life all contributed to the decision to make Newton the company's home base.
"We made the transition from traffic and taxes to bucolic Route 108 in Newton, New Hampshire," he said. "If I had to choose between Cambridge or Newton, I'd pick Newton any day."
Contract from U.S. Navy
The business started as an idea almost 10 years ago, when Justin Bishop, now the company's chief technical officer, and his father created what they called halo barriers to protect shoreline from erosion. A group of investors met Bishop at a security conference in 2007, and appreciated the market potential in the technology as the Department of Homeland Security had ordered protective barriers around all U.S. military ships in American ports.
With a sole-source contract in hand from the U.S. Navy, and another order lined up from an allied nation, the company is ready to break out after six years of incubation.
Barriers now in the market look more like chain-link fences, than the solid barrier Halo has created, Jensen said. When struck by an oncoming boat, the Halo barrier takes advantage of the water pressure behind it to stop the oncoming threat.
"We want to put something in the water that's going to last 15 years," he said. Anyone who understands the corrosive effects of moving water on any object can appreciate the engineering challenge Halo had to overcome.
A logical choice
Jensen was a logical choice to lead the company, as the investor group began looking for someone with a military background who had experience in plastics and chemistry. He spent nine years in the Army and was discharged as a captain. He has a master's degree in chemistry from MIT, taught chemistry at West Point, and over his career worked in management positions with GE Plastics and Eastman Kodak.
"When my roommate from West Point called and told me about this project to create barriers to stop terrorist boats, I wasn't quite ready to quit my day job," he said, but within a year he was convinced, and in 2007 joined the company.
"We had an idea," he said. "The biggest challenge for us was getting that idea off the PowerPoint and into production - that, and lining up some contracts, seeding the market."
Since then, the organization has grown to 10 employees and will soon be ready to install its first barriers. The business plan calls for the manufacturing to be out-sourced mostly to local subcontractors, with Halo monitoring the process and supervising the final assembly on-site.
"Homeland security, unfortunately, is a growth industry," Jensen said. "Four to five suppliers in New Hampshire are already doing a lot of our development work. Eventually we will have a dozen suppliers and the support structure around this will grow. We could manage a billion-dollar business with 30 people. The technology will create jobs around us."