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November 15, 2010 | last updated December 1, 2011 9:42 am

Signal repeaters | A pair of antenna technology entrepreneurs starts over in Lewiston

Photo/Amber Waterman
Photo/Amber Waterman
George Harris, left, and Peter Robicheau of Micronetixx Communications
Photo/Amber Waterman
Steve Robicheau, son of Micronetixx VP Peter Robicheau, builds a shipping crate for a digital broadcast antenna destined for Quebec
Photo/Amber Waterman
Jonathan Holmes watches the screen of a lathe machine while manufacturing an antenna part at Micronetixx's facility in Lewiston

Work history

1979: George Harris and Peter Robicheau meet as co-workers at Shively Labs in Raymond

1991: Harris founds RF Technologies in Turner, which he and Robicheau relocate to Lewiston

2004: The Ferrite Co. of Nashua, N.H., acquires RF Technologies

2009: Ferrite shutters RF Technologies and pulls out of Maine

March 2010: Harris and Robicheau launch Micronetixx Communications in Lewiston

July 2010: Ferrite files for bankruptcy

Mixed signals

This antenna, operated by the University of New Mexico, was among Micronetixx's first orders. It sends out a signal in an elliptical pattern, while other Micronetixx antennas broadcast a spiraling signal, diagrammed at left, that's well-suited to mobile media devices.

George Harris stands in an echoing warehouse in Lewiston explaining with obvious enthusiasm where one of his company's high-powered antennas has wound up. "We've got one antenna on the Empire State Building," he explains, proud as a parent, describing how his product meets the various appearance, space and safety regulations governing the top of one of the world's most famous buildings.

The son of a ham radio enthusiast and an expert in radio frequency technology and microwave physics, Harris is the CEO of Micronetixx Communications, a startup that designs and manufactures antennas for digital television and mobile media broadcasting. He explains, his face expressive behind frameless glasses, how his company's antennas more efficiently direct signals to viewers' cell phones and TVs, as his partner, Peter Robicheau, chats nearby with an employee. "They take signals from station transmitters and focus them to where people are watching," he says. He breaks and looks over at Robicheau, clad in a worn denim jacket and jeans. "Pete, did you want to add to this?" Harris asks politely. "No, no," Robicheau responds, "just let me know if you run out of words." Harris chuckles.

The two men have developed an easy familiarity after working side by side in the field for more than three decades, Harris as the antenna technology pro and Robicheau as the design and manufacturing expert. "It's almost like Kirk and Spock," Harris says. "We've always worked together." If that's the case, then the 26,000-square-foot building they're operating out of in the Gendron Business Park is their Starship Enterprise. The duo has operated not one but two companies out of the building, starting in 1991 with RF Technologies, another antenna business. They sold it to a New Hampshire company in 2004, only to see it shuttered five years later as part of a bankruptcy filing that's left each of them burned and trying to collect on hundreds of thousands of dollars they claim they're owed.

Now, as they resume their old offices, the men are looking for a fresh start. "Our best measure of revenge is being successful," Robicheau says.

Starting out

Harris and Robicheau first met in 1979, when they were employed by the same antenna company in Raymond. Harris later left to work as a consultant, which brought him to the prestigious Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, where he helped to develop cutting-edge microwave power technology. When the lab sought proposals for implementing the technology, Harris decided to submit his own, working from a modest office in Portland's Old Port. He'd kept in touch with Robicheau after taking on his former employer as a client, and decided to see if his old co-worker wanted in. Serendipitously, Robicheau had just been laid off from a job building FM radio antennas. "I came up with the concept, and I asked if he could build it," Harris says. "He said, 'yes.'"

RF Technologies was born in 1991 out of a small shop in Turner, and later moved to the Gendron Business Park. Harris originally eyed Portland for the venture, but financing and assistance from the Lewiston-Auburn Economic Growth Council lured him to central Maine. The company grew to employ 33 people with annual sales of around $2 million, and in 2004 was acquired by The Ferrite Co., a Nashua, N.H.-based manufacturer of microwave heating components and systems.

Under the deal, Ferrite was required to operate RF Technologies from Lewiston for at least four years. Harris stayed with the company until 2008, then left to pursue a PhD at the University of Maine in microwave physics. Robicheau stuck it out a bit longer, but was let go in 2009 after Ferrite pulled out of Maine and laid off nearly 20 employees.

Ferrite was coming off its most successful year ever in 2008 with $20 million in sales, but when the capital equipment market tanked, it wasn't adequately prepared, the men say. The company is now in Chapter 11 bankruptcy, with more than $9 million in liabilities and less than $5 million in assets, according to its court filings. Harris holds a nearly $1.7 million claim against Ferrite, while Robicheau's claim amounts to more than $230,000. Neither man has high hopes for recovering his money.

Adding to its troubles, Hormel Foods Corp. sued the company in May for failing to provide services and return confidential information. Hormel paid Ferrite $15,000 for a hog-stunning system in 2008, but claims the New Hampshire company fell short of its contract with Hormel and then refused to refund its deposit. Ferrite also allegedly failed to return proprietary information. Hormel is seeking $30,000 in damages.

"They ran the company into the ground," Harris says of Ferrite's management. Both he and Robicheau were also shareholders in the company. "You're looking at two of many casualties right here," he says, sitting with Robicheau in his nearly bare office. "We've lost a fortune."

But without Ferrite's failure, there would be no Micronetixx. Harris had to leave his PhD program at UMaine after the company stopped honoring his severance agreement and he needed to start earning some money. "You can either sit there and cry about it or move on," he says.

He and Robicheau teamed up for the second time in March, again with help from the Lewiston-Auburn Economic Growth Council and Dave Gendron, an area businessman and owner of the business park. The former RF Technologies building had sat vacant since the business was shut down, so both parties were eager to strike a deal. The reasonable rent terms allowed Micronetixx to get off the ground and gave Gendron a paying tenant, a win-win for both, Harris says. (The men are also launching another company, Micronetixx Microwave, out of the same building, which will focus on high-powered industrial microwave technology applications, including laminated veneer lumber composites.)

A sign reading "Ferrite/RF Technologies" still hangs on the building's exterior and both Harris and Robicheau, VP of manufacturing and design, have returned to the same rooms that previously housed each of their offices. In some ways, it's like they never left. "I rotated my desk around just to make it a little different," Robicheau quips, grinning behind his gray mustache.

A second try

Given his impressive resume — which includes consulting at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Plasma Fusion Research Center and 11 U.S. patents issued to him with another five pending — you might not expect George Harris to use a simple analogy to explain his company's broadcast antenna technology. Say you enter a dark room, he explains, and you want to illuminate a small spot on the wall. If you switch on a flashlight and point it at that spot, you'll light up that area and the space around it. But if you put the flashlight's bulb in a reflector, it will focus that beam to precisely pinpoint the spot on the wall. "We have to build antennas that focus signals to where people are watching a long way away," he says.

Older and less sophisticated technologies just aren't as adept at focusing television broadcast signals, Harris says. Micronetixx's antennas, in addition to being 9% to 13% more efficient, also boast quality design and components and exceed federal safety regulations governing radiation output, he says. That gives the company an edge in a market that's presently dominated by giants like global supplier SPX Corp. "Most of these larger organizations, they build their antennas from templates that kind of shoehorn the customer," Harris says.

With Canada now undergoing the switch to digital TV that the United States initiated three years ago, Micronetixx is landing the bulk of its customers north of the border, but one of its first sales was to the University of New Mexico for a digital TV antenna that transmits a signal through the ground.

The company's also tackling the mobile media market, with antennas capable of sending signals to cell phones and televisions mounted inside moving minivans. While older TV antennas are oriented on a horizontal plane and can only "see" signals from similarly oriented receivers, Micronetixx's antennas can launch a spinning signal that comes from all orientations. That means a cell phone or other mobile TV device can pick it up no matter how it's positioned. So you can tip your cell phone sideways without losing the signal for your local TV news broadcast. It's technology that plenty of iPhone users would have welcomed over the summer, when many were plagued with lost signals depending on how they held their phones.

The technology's potential played a large part in the growth council's decision to grant Micronetixx another bridge loan, much like it did for RF Technologies years ago, according to marketing director Paul Badeau. "We felt it was a state-of-the-art company with an extremely promising future," he says. "There aren't many companies like it in Maine." It didn't hurt that Harris had paid off his previous LAEGC loan in full, either.

In fact, Micronetixx launched in March with no debt at all, Harris says. The company now has more than $1 million in proposals out and a stream of steady work. It has also rehired eight employees, many of whom had been working temporary jobs since RF Technologies closed down, including welders to fabricate custom machinery. A year from now, Harris and Robicheau expect to employ closer to 20 and within three years, they're projecting at least $2 million to $3 million in sales.

The men's experience with Ferrite may have left them smarting, but they haven't ruled out another acquisition down the road if their growth projections for Micronetixx pan out and a worthy partner comes calling. Whomever that might be, the local skilled work force is sure to sway any company to maintain a presence in Lewiston, the men say. "I don't do a lot of looking back, but when I do, I realize we've created some microwave and [radio frequency] networks that a lot of people wouldn't even try," Robicheau says.

The turn of events since Ferrite's acquisition hasn't dented the growth council's faith in the endeavor either. "That's just a reality of 20th-century business," Badeau says. Companies get bought up, their acquirers squeeze what they can from the new asset and then, eventually, shed them. "All the power to [Harris] to have picked up the pieces and started over again," he says.

Micronetixx Communications
1 Gendron Drive, Lewiston
Founded: March 2010
Services: Design and manufacture of antennas for digital television and mobile media broadcasting
Employees: 8
Annual revenue, year one: $1 million
Projected revenue, year two: $2 million-$3 million
Contact: 786-2000
www.micronetixxantennas.com

Jackie Farwell, Mainebiz senior writer, can be reached at jfarwell@mainebiz.biz.

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