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June 2, 1999


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The Man Who Would Protect Our Secrets

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Arthur J Pais in Boston

Sushil Bhatia For Framingham inventor and businessman Sushil Bhatia, laughter is a dead serious business.

For many years now, he has taught himself and his family the laughter therapy. And he conducts weekly courses in which the participants join group laughter sessions. Recently, he asked his audience of 30 to stand up and laugh, swapping high-fives with the persons sitting next to them. The event was organized by the MetroWest Chamber of Commerce.

"The trick is to get them to laugh without the help of any jokes or humorous events," says Bhatia with a hearty chuckle. "Laughter followed by meditation works wonders with the body and mind."

"When people are happy at work, they produce, and at the end of the day, the work gets done," he continues. "Hearty laughter helps a great deal indeed."

Bhatia, who also offers regimen to put oneself to sleep in less than 30 seconds, could soon be laughing all the way to the bank.

For Bhatia's newest invention, the DeCopier, has been getting big buzz -- and has been discussed in the pages of The Times, London and The Wall Street Journal. Several top television stations including NBC and CNN featured in recent months his DeCopier machine, developed at an approximate cost of $ 800,000 and over a period of two and half years, in their nightly programs.

Last year, he received a $ 70,000 grant from the Federal Environmental Protection Agency, and this year he hopes to secure a $ 225,000 grant.

Bhatia, whose company is based in the industrial town of Framingham, about 40 minutes drive from Boston, has his eyes set on the world market. He is not interested in only saving the universe by stemming the cutting of trees, he says. "Saving corporate secrets is equally important," he says laughing.

Citing the recent scandals involving the theft of American nuclear secrets by the Chinese, Bhatia says the DeCopier, which is expected to be in the market in about six months, would be a big boon for private and public businesses.

"Shredding is not a foolproof method, for you can reassemble shredded material," he says. "Our tests have shown there is no way to reinstate what DeCopier has removed."

"There is a $ 24 billion loss of intellectual property worldwide from stolen documents," he says.

"There is a simple solution," says 54-year-old Bhatia, the head of DeCopier Technologies and the parent company, JMD Manufacturing which manufacturers coding equipment and labels used in supermarket products. "People ought to transfer their documents into highly secured computer files and then decopy their used sheets of paper."

Shredding is also a costly exercise. BusinessWeek magazine estimated recently that shredder sales reached $ 280 million last year. Depending on their size, shredders sell from $ 30 to $ 12,000. When the DeCopier are mass marketed, their cost could range between $ 1,500 to $ 5,000, Bhatia says.

Currently, the DeCopier, which can clean 60 pages in a minute, is expected to be sold at $ 45,000. "But with substantial orders and large scale manufacturing, within a few years, we could bring down the price dramatically, say to $ 5,000," Bhatia says. He believes a $ 45,000 high-speed DeCopier will pay for itself in 18 months for a company that uses 1,000 sheets of paper a day. The less expensive models Of DeCopier could be of substantial help to smaller companies.

The DeCopier, which is the size of an office copy machine, uses a chemical mixture to remove the toner, Bhatia says "Right now we can effectively reuse a paper five times," he says. "Eventually, a single sheet should be copied and decopied hundreds of times."

"We call it a Decopier because it uses a similar process to the photocopier," he explains, "but has the opposite function."

Sushil Bhatia "With a copy machine you take a blank piece of paper, run it through the machine and an image is put on the paper," Bhatia explains. "DeCopier works the opposite way. You take a printed page, put in our machine, and in seconds, you have clean, perfectly usable paper on hand."

Bhatia says he is not taking on ace magician David Copperfield but he can make hundreds of words disappear before Copperfield could sign his name on a sheet of paper. And what is more Bhatia could save the American industry (to start with) more than half of the $ 600 million monthly tab. Worldwide the saving could be more than $ 1 billion each month. If his product finds wide acceptance, Bhatia could change working habits and environment across the world.

"We were supposed to have paperless offices," he says with a big chuckle. "But thanks to easy access to computers and e-mail, we are writing more, sending more memos, and printing an awful more information than ever before. Naturally, we are consuming more paper than ever before. And you know how expensive transparencies are."

"People rush to print the messages and information because they somehow feel more secure holding a printed piece of paper, " he continues. "An increase in photocopiers, laser printers and fax machines also increases the use of paper."

"I was looking at the growth of the personal computer in people's lives and that got me thinking about just how much paper people use these days," he adds. "I don't care what people predict, the idea of a paperless office is never going to happen. It is a myth.

"As the owner of my own business, I know how much paper costs."

Instead of sending memos to his employees about the waste of paper, Bhatia decided to work on his invention.

Bhatia enjoys creating cartoons in his spare time but he now makes sure that the DeCopier takes care of the discarded cartoons.

The DeCopier could help remove ink and toner from 81 billion sheets of paper used in America each month. It could also recycle some of the transparencies dumped into landfills each year and save much of the $ 15 million spent on new transparencies.

Based on a number of studies, he reckons Americans send some 11 million transparencies into landfills each year. The number is quite high in many European countries, too.

Bhatia believes that DeCopier will find wide acceptance with government agencies at the national and local levels. He has been talking to such agencies as the US Navy about using the DeCopier. Though the US Air Force had shown interest in his DeCopier, he does not expect a fast response. For like many private businesses, the Air Force too is cutting down expenses and personnel. But since President Bill Clinton has pledged to dramatically increase the funding for the armed forces, Bhatia plans to make another pitch for his DeCopier.

His invention also decopies highlighter, magic marker, and ink and pencil marks.

"For over a year and half, we have been working towards raising $ 1.5 million to manufacture and market our product," says Bhatia. "Now with the media attention, we are attracting serious investors."

Investors have been more willing to back emerging markets such as biotechnology and computers and ignore lower-tech ideas as the DeCopier," he complains. While his product is getting plenty of attention there are some including Jeff Simik, a Xerox spokesman, who doubt the "economic practicality" the DeCopier. 'Fortunately or unfortunately paper is pretty cheap,' Simik told The Wall Street Journal.

But Bhatia looks at his invention differently.

"There is not only a great environmental advantage here," he continues, "But it also saves money -- you limit your purchase of paper, you also cut down the transportation costs."

Months of research yielded a milky, paste-like liquid that instantly breaks up toner and ink when applied to paper and transparencies. The flaked-off bits of ink are not to be wasted, he adds. For they can be mixed in as filler material in road construction.

"When all said and done, there is practically no waste," he adds with a hearty chuckle.

His invention began to catch national (and then international) attention after Bhatia submitted an entry form to Discover magazine, along with 4,000 other American inventors about two years ago. Though Bhatia made it to the shortlist, his invention could not win the $ 100,000 Christopher Columbus Prize. But he is more than happy with the praise DeCopier received from peers and the media.

DeCopier is also winning praise from industry experts. "Using the DeCopier is like writing something on a chalk board with a magic marker and wiping it out clean," says Ashok Kalekar, a senior vice-president for technology and product innovation at Arthur D Little, Inc. "We have customers who could buy the DeCopier right now if it is off the shelf."

Bhatia, who has an MS from New Delhi, received his Ph D in physical chemistry from the University of Liege in Belgium and his MBA from Suffolk University, Boston. The products he has developed have resulted in over $ 50 million sales in the last decade. These include copier labels.

Bhatia went into his own business when he was laid off in 1993 when Avery Dennison merged with another firm in 1993.

"I started my own business because I never wanted to be downsized again," says Bhatia who started JMD Manufacturing to produce his own line of human readable scanners. Scanners print, among other things, expiry dates on products and product information..

"The other reason is that I have always wanted to be an entrepreneur and it was the perfect opportunity to strike out on my own," he adds.

"The whole key to getting started was coming up with a realistic business plan," he continues. "The right business plan can be used like a road map to get your company where you want to go."

Like any other good business plan, Bhatia's plans too look at the product one wants to manufacture, the market place for such a product and the financing it takes to get the product to the customers.

"It is the first thing a bank is going to want to go over before deciding if you are worth investing in," he explains.

"Being your own boss is still a lot of hard work, but if you have a good plan. It is a lot easier to get where you want to go."

He has been aware, right from the time he decided to start his own company, that he had to be on the competitive edge. "In business, you have to keep abreast of what is happening, what the latest developments are," he continues. "And you have constantly to think to yourself -- `How would I do this differently? How could I do this better than the other companies are'?"

For someone who takes off an hour a day to do yoga and is the leader of the conservation movement in his hometown of Framingham, it was natural for Bhatia, father of three children, to think of personal computers -- and how to make an office cut down costs,.

Bhatia says he is not a Gandhian. But growing up in India, he was constantly challenged to make things work for himself. "When you grow with limited resources, you try to get the best out of everything," he says. "You also look at things and say: 'Is there a better way to do this?' "

He saves many hours a week for fulfilling his civic responsibilities.

He is aware of the wild downsizing that is going on across America -- thousands of workers lose their jobs when big companies merge. Bhatia, through the Framingham Chamber of Commerce, tries to help some of the local jobless men and women start their own business. Or at least inspire them to acquire new skills or upgrade the existing ones, so that they could find gainful employment elsewhere.

"In my hour of need, these were the organizations and the people who helped me," he says, referring to the Chamber of Commerce.

"They are still for me today."

"I just want to be there, too, when someone needs help"

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