It was a work of love.
Chattanooga-based startup Variable Inc. has emerged from the nest of the city's business incubator, opening a downtown office and a new production site as the company takes flight.
Started by Chattanoogan Dr. George Yu in 2012, the company has inked a big deal with retail paint giant Sherwin-Williams.
Variable expects to have its Color Muse color scanning device in all of Sherwin-Williams' 4,200 stores in the United States and Canada this year, Yu said.
"I want everyone using this product," he said about the hand-held devise aimed at everyday consumers.
About the size of a 35 mm film cartridge, Color Muse lets users scan the color of an object and find matches to specific products in everything from paint to fashion to furniture to makeup, Yu said.
Variable, which now has 45 employees, is ramping up production at a 7,500-square-foot facility off Amnicola Highway leased from Fidelity Trust Co.
Matt McGauley, Fidelity's CEO, said he bought the building and revamped it to suit Variable's needs. He quipped that all the doors in the production facility are painted a different color.
"I'm glad we added color to the doors," McGauley said. "[Variable] is a color company."
Variable also has leased office space off Cherry Street in the city's Innovation District. The company has about 15 people working in the former Krystal Co. headquarters building that Fidelity refurbished in 2015.
The 35-year-old Yu said Variable was located in the Hamilton County Business Development Center for five years as the company matured.
"We were packed in the BDC trying to produce this product," he said.
It was a BDC employee who took the Color Muse device to the Sherwin-Williams store at nearby Cherokee Boulevard to show it to a manager. Eventually, Variable landed a meeting with a Sherwin-Williams' corporate buyer around the holidays last year, Yu said. The first Sherwin-Williams order for Color Muse was for 18,000 units.
"I was not walking away without the beginnings of a deal," he said.
Selling for about $59 each, Color Muse uses technology Variable had earlier developed in a product called the Node, Yu said. That unit had sold for about $400. Yu said the company stripped out everything it could from the Node to get the price down and to focus on color scanning.
"It was a work of love," he said.
Yu said company sales were about $3 million last year and he believes Variable will do "significantly more than that" in 2018. But, he said, what motivates him more than sales is for people to use Color Muse.
According to Variable, Color Muse can find precise color-matched products, including paint, textile, carpet, tile, apparel, accessories and others. Launched with an app and Bluetooth accessible, Color Muse can create, save and even share project palettes via email or social networks.
Variable claims that color accuracy is better than the human eye and far superior than a camera. In addition to North America, Yu also is aiming to generate sales in Europe and China.
"We've just started exporting to China," said Yu, who himself was born in China but raised in Houston, Texas.
In 2008, after graduating from Georgia Tech with a doctorate in electrical engineering, he worked with NASA to develop smartphone-based toxic gas sensors for the Department of Homeland Security.
About eight years ago, he followed his wife to Chattanooga, who teaches computer science at University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
In 2012, Variable raised about $76,000 in a Kickstarter campaign. In 2013, CNN said the Node was "the coolest gizmo" it came across at the annual Consumer Electronics Show.
Six years ago, Yu recalls he and his wife were at a store looking at paint colors and "wondering why people were using cards."
Since that time, Yu estimates the company has raised about $6.3 million in funding.
Variable also produces a thermometer for restaurants and grocery stores using sensor technology that by the end of the year will be sold in Whole Foods stores across the United States.
Contact Mike Pare at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6318.