Not someone to shy away from taking professional risks, one could argue that Bob Blackburn was destined to be an entrepreneur. While walking over a bridge one day on his way home from work as a life insurance salesman, Bob realized that his job wasn’t fulfilling him. Instead of merely accepting his unhappiness, he did what many of us would only ever dream of doing—he threw his briefcase in the water and kept walking. Soon after, he was pursuing graduate studies in counseling at Illinois State University in Bloomington/Normal. While finishing up his courses, Bob spoke with his brother, a chemist, and the two came up with an idea to create a chemically resistant plastic. It was another risk, but it seemed to be too good of an idea and opportunity to pass up.
When their idea proved to be possible, they realized the enormous potential that this plastic material could have for those who need to collect samples of chemicals. It was then that they created Blackburn Sampling, the company of which Bob is President and CEO. Their product offering has expanded from one to now eight different products with the most popular being a basic tube (called a thief) and the Coliwasa (which stands for Composite Liquid Waste Sampler). The Coliwasa works in a fashion similar to that of a syringe and can be used for collecting all types of liquid and semi-liquid substances.
Behind this seemingly simple innovation lies countless hours spent testing and perfecting the design in order to ensure the highest quality and safety standards. To anyone who collects flammable materials, such as those in environmental cleanups and those in the chemical and oil industry, this innovation could be a life-saver—literally! Conventional samplers that are composed of metal can easily create a spark when they come into contact with flammable materials, which can ignite a fire or cause an explosion.
Blackburn’s invention of anti-static polypropylene samplers has created a desirable mix of safety, ease of use, and affordability that does not currently exist on the market elsewhere. This is because the anti-static capabilities means decreased risk of a spark, thus eliminating much of the danger in collecting and sampling flammable liquids. The simple design allows for superior ease-of-use. And because the polypropylene plastic cannot break–unlike conventional glass samplers–you don’t need to worry about accidents that could release and spread harmful waste. Also, the low cost of polypropylene plastic allows the samplers to be very affordable, making safety accessible to all.
Blackburn’s innovation and its potential have not gone unnoticed. The samplers are widely used by the Environmental Protection Agency, Clean Harbors, and many other environmental agencies. This past October, Blackburn Sampling also finished in the Top 75 at the Chicago Innovation Awards, which recognizes significant new and creative products and services in the region.
Although his course seems like an unlikely path, Bob is evidence that one does not need to have a young, business graduate in order to be a successful entrepreneur. The Sustainable Business Center and EBI Network are proud to have Bob Blackburn and his company as one of their tenants, and they look forward to what the future has in store.
Article Written By: Elena Johnson and Tim Worrell