“They have no idea what’s in it,” says Michael Aiken. “At the end of the day, if it doesn’t smell too terrible, they think it’s probably OK.”
Aiken’s start-up, Romabio, has created an alternative to acrylics that don’t stir up health risks or additional problems for the planet. Its mineral paints and plasters are free of toxins. They’re odorless and mold-resistant. They’re even made from natural raw materials.
“When you hear something’s made with a synthetic chemical, you have to believe there’s a better solution in nature,” Aiken says.
He didn’t grow up planning to revolutionize the paint world. As an undergrad at Randolph-Macon College, Aiken loved science but “just did OK” in chemistry. Medical school didn’t pan out. “Since I’m a pretty big talker, people kept saying, ‘You should go into sales,’” Aiken recalls. He found his entrepreneurial spirit a good fit for the commercial real estate and finance industries.
Flash ahead to 2009. Married with three kids, Aiken was preparing to paint his Decatur, Georgia, house. A friend told him about an unusual, all-natural paint. It wasn’t sold at a big-box store but only available in a 1,000-square-foot shop tucked behind an architect’s office. Curious, Michael checked it out.
The store wasn’t impressive — there were only a few racks and a tint machine. But Aiken’s conversation with the owner, Chris Lewis, was. The two men talked acrylic paint and its devastating effect on the environment. Lewis explained how the nontoxic, solvent-free paint he sold had been created by an Italian chemist, Patrizio Betti, based on ancient methods that date back to the Etruscans.
Aiken left with enough natural paint to cover the interior of his home — and a gut instinct that more people needed to know about it.
He and Lewis went into business together. Over the next few years, they kept encouraging Betti to create more durable and even cleaner paint formulations. Then Aiken used his business acumen to introduce their products to the building trade.
This year, Romabio supplied interior paint for one of Google’s recent developments in Sunnyvale, California, and a skyscraper in Beijing. Cans of its products are sold in home-improvement stores across Europe, as well as Benjamin Moore dealers and Home Depots throughout the U.S.
In the meantime, Aiken’s mission is to go even greener. Romabio has plans to ship its products in biodegradable plastic buckets. Leftover paint may no longer need to be treated like hazardous waste but will instead biodegrade through a new technology the company has been working on for the past year.
Aiken is, after all, a big picture guy. The best part of his job? Being part of a venture that “drives humanity forward,” he says.