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The green and global signmakers

John Souter, director of operations
Photo by Bill Kelley
John Souter, director of operations

When you think of Minnesota exports, what comes to mind? Medical devices, ores, ag products. But in a tech-powered, globalizing world, Minnesota export opportunities are changing as intriguing new niches open up. Like ADA-compliant interior signage.

During the Beijing Olympics in 2008, for example, all of the American-owned hotels were required to follow the same handicap-accessibility codes we use in the United States.

The Line

That was fabulous news to Accent Signage, a Minneapolis company that holds a patented technology for imprinting Braille on signs. "Any building where there is public access must conform to the Americans with Disabilities Act," said John Souter, director of operations. "That's a driver for business for us. We get requests from all over the world."

Accent Signage is an industry leader in ADA-compliant interior signage — when the company founder visited the White House for a workshop on green products in June, he received a bit of confirmation on that.

"I was very pleased to see all the signs at the White House were using my Raster-Braille," said Reuven Rahamim. "For a small company out of Minneapolis, we have far-reaching projects."

Going global, going green

In fact, Accent's far reach is part of its survival plan. Before the onset of the Great Recession, the company decided to focus on two strategies to weather looming downturn in the construction industry: international growth and new natural materials.

Photo by Bill Kelley
The Universal Auto Raster® Braille Inserter puts beads in
tiny holes to make Braille signage.

To grow the international business, Rahamim is attending trade shows in Munich, Paris, and Frankfurt. He collaborates on projects in the Middle East, and he's finding new business in countries that are starting to become interested in ADA compliance, such as Brazil. Even China is showing interest, he said, because they want their new projects to look like the American hotels that arrived during the Olympics.

"Before you called, I was looking to hire another three people within the next three months," said Souter. "International business is up, which is great, primarily due to Raster-Braille. We have, worldwide, 3,500 customers. It's fairly significant. As the Americans with Disabilities Act grows, so does use of our Braille system."

The Braille system implants a domed, rounded sphere that offers an easy-to-read feel — less-round Braille spheres are a tad tougher to decipher.

"It offers less finger fatigue for people with no or low vision," Souter said.

Braille for St. Kate's

Rahamim started the sign shop in the basement of his home, and he invented Raster-Braille in the late '80s as part of a project for St. Catherine University. The school was offering a degree program for the blind, drawing students from all over the world, and staff wanted to include Braille on their signs. "[The invention] was a primitive, simple process," Rahamim said. He described drilling a hole and using an aquarium fish pump to press beads into the hole. "Today, it's a fully automated process," he said.

ADA was signed into law by Pres. George H.W. Bush in 1990, at a time when war veterans were increasingly struggling with accessibility issues.

"America was the only country to do something of that scale and size," Souter said. "It was a driving force around the world. If it wasn't for ADA requirements developed here, I'm not sure much of Europe would be accessible."

Accent Signage has survived a few formal challenges to its patent, and as a result, Rahamim said the patent is stronger than ever. He even hosted visitors from Japan who wanted to see the technology firsthand.

"They couldn't fathom that you could drill a hole, put a ball in it and it would stay," he said. "They flew in to Minneapolis just to look at it."

Earth-friendly signs

Despite holding a coveted patent, Accent Signage doesn't sit idle. As soon as one new patent is approved (Accent has four of them), staff start upgrading technologies to the next level.

They started developing the green "Materia" signage line around 2006. The company was already focused on green manufacturing--it purchases wind power, it recycles sawdust to sell by the pound, and it's looking to install a solar array next year. In addition, Rahamim's son has asthma, and he worries about the dramatic increase in asthma cases in recent decades.

"People think you paint a sign and then you're done. But those things constantly emit VOCs [volatile organic compounds]," he said.

Souter said it was clear that the company needed to evolve and create a new product. "There were studies based on children in school showing absenteeism through allergies," he said. "You could sort of see the writing on the wall, what was going to happen. We thought we had a huge opportunity here. We had the technology, all we had to do is find the money trail."

As a small company, Souter said, the ecological research took a lot of time and a lot of work. They decided to use materials like virgin wood fiber, recycled cardboard, plant sugars and starches. The final product was certified by GreenGuard Indoor Air Quality, which involved a review of the entire manufacturing process, as well as a materials test in a scientific chamber that measured trace amounts of VOC levels over extended periods of time.

Light matters

Materia is not the only product Accent has invented lately. Patents are pending for a backlighting system that provides even illumination.

Photo by Bill Kelley
A backlit Accent room sign on a cruise ship

"If you go into a store and see backlit panels, quite often you see the source of the illuminate behind them--it's not very uniform," Souter said. "That becomes important when you're looking at branding. If you have '3M Red' and you put it on a panel, you want it to still look like '3M Red' and look uniform. The goal is the same appearance as if you're looking at a white sheet."

Myrna Orensten, co-owner of the Minneapolis design firm Imaginality, said one of his favorite collaborations with Accent involved a casino project in Seattle. They printed a wood finish for the background, added tactile letters, and created a texture so the sign actually felt like wood as well. Another favorite project involved lot markers on a new lakefront development. The markers were UV protected so they wouldn't fade over time, and they were nice enough to serve as gifts for people who bought property. "They were something that could be hanging in the entryway," Orensten said.

Accent's work also goes beyond sign-making. Staff have set up workshops at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Moose Lake, where they teach job skills and train inmates to build signs for the state. Accent provides the same type of training at the VA Hospital in Milwaukee, serving veterans who have difficulty finding work.

Rahamim said he tries to give back to the community, because the U.S. has allowed him to achieve success he wouldn't have reached anywhere else. He was born in Israel, and he moved here in 1974.

"This country has so much opportunity if you apply yourself," he said. "I don't know many people who have died of hard labor or studying too much in school. You need to be industrious."

He said it's important to maintain a strong manufacturing base in the United States, especially in terms of innovation.

"If you're not going to build anything, how are you going to build it better?" he said.

Michelle Bruch's last article for The Line was a discussion of the state of the Minnesota movie industry, in our July 25, 2012 issue.

This article is reprinted in partnership with The Line, an online chronicle of Twin Cities creativity in entrepreneurship, culture, retail, placemaking, the arts, and other elements of the new creative economy.

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