Inside a former ammunition plant in one of Philadelphia’s river wards, the tick-tick-tick-tick would be instantly recognized by any 30th Street Station regular.
On a recent afternoon, two were hanging on a workshop wall in design-and-build firm Oat Foundry’s new headquarters in Bridesburg, their motor-driven carousels of letters and numbers imprinted on die-cut plastic flaps spinning out test messages. Soon, those would be shipped to a brewpub in Saskatchewan and a trade show in Germany.
A third is for in-house use, a workhorse of sorts with more than 10 million spins (and counting) on it to determine the lifespan of an Oat Foundry flip-style board.
The region’s most familiar flip-style board was pulled out of service last month from its prominent perch in the middle of 30th Street Station’s soaring great hall, where it announced arriving and departing trains since the 1970s. Built by Italian manufacturer Solari, it became technologically obsolete and expensive to fix. Its replacement is a larger digital sign, with smaller ones installed above the stairways to all the platforms, augmented by overhead announcements to better serve the visually impaired.
Yet, undeterred is Oat Foundry, a company founded by six Drexel engineering alum specializing in split-flap boards in use throughout the world including, more locally, at Honeygrow restaurants and the recently opened Shakespeare & Co. bookstore/cafe on Walnut Street. The six-year-old company, however, is not pinning its hopes entirely on the old-school boards, learning early on that essential to the survival of every start-up is an ability to pivot.
“We envisioned making pretzel-vending machines,” John Halko, 28, Oat Foundry’s product manager, laughingly said of the early days, when the company evolved from an entrepreneurial bond the founders developed over a senior design project in 2013: a soft pretzel vending machine.
When their client for that Drexel project opted against going any further with the machines — which earned the guys an A in class — they didn’t panic. They got down to basics.
“We knew we could build stuff and tried our damnedest to make money on it,” Halko said. “It’s not very eloquent, but we just followed the money.”
Which is how they came to make split-flap boards. They were asked by Honeygrow, then a new fast-casual restaurant chain offering customizable stir-fry and salads with a location inside 30th Street Station, to reproduce a more modest-sized, affordable version of the Solari board for them.
It required Oat Foundry to develop a program that would flip the Rolodex-like cards in each display board module to match the sound that seemed to be endearing — evident from the outcry over the Solari sign’s removal — to many Amtrak passengers.
“The sound was critical,” said Mark Kuhn, Oat Foundry’s CEO. “That was what was most evocative of 30th Street. It’s a very familiar sound.”
The initial rollout to Honeygrow was 20 displays, their primary purpose as a real-time “order up” notification that integrated with the point-of-sale system and as a marketing tool, Kuhn said. As Honeygrow started shifting away from using them, Oat Foundry bought the exclusivity rights to them, Kuhn said.
"We really owe Honeygrow a lot. It was our first taste with product development,” he said.
Oat Foundry’s next break came when it was hired to create a split-flap board for a new craft beer tavern next to Wrigley Field in Chicago. That job, said Kuhn, was “validation for us that people outside the Philadelphia region like this, too.”
But this was a company built by problem solvers and with “We build cool stuff” as its tag line.
Now, Oat Foundry’s portfolio includes a range of product design and other services, including creating of an industrial-scale coffee machine for BKON LLC in Moorestown that uses reverse vacuum infusion to convert the usual 24-hour cold-brew process to 15 minutes, and conducting in-depth engineering research to help Fishtown’s Weckerly’s find a new ice cream sandwich cutting machine capable of handling the family-owned micro-creamery’s growing demand.
And helping enable the launch of a LaColombe Draft Latte into space.
“That’s how you celebrate a launch,” said the never-understated LaColombe cofounder and CEO Todd Carmichael, who raved about an adventurous culture at Oat Foundry that he said is rare among engineers.
“I’ve never heard, ‘It’s not possible,’” Carmichael said of proposals he’s brought to Oat Foundry, including creating a new mobile device that can toast a pastry with a USB cord, and, yes, helping send a can of latte beyond Earth’s bounds with a custom-made launch vehicle — complete with heaters, a few GoPros, parachutes, and a GPS tracking device.
“Oat Foundry is a place I go where everything is possible,” Carmichael said.
One of Philadelphia’s 100 fast-growing businesses in 2018, Oat Foundry moved in January from Bensalem to the redeveloped Frankford Arsenal complex just off I-95 at the Bridge Street/Harbison Avenue exit — the location chosen largely because each of the Drexel six lives in Philadelphia, Kuhn said.
For Sean Rossiter, 28, Oat Foundry’s president and product manager, the “primary passion is growing a small business located in Philadelphia, where I grew up.”
The company’s five-year lease is for 5,200 square feet to accommodate a staff that has grown to 8 full-time and 10 part-time employees, and an expanding workload that contributed to $857,000 in revenue in 2017, up from $146,000 in 2015, according to its Philadelphia 100 application. Kuhn said the company no longer makes its annual revenue public, saying only that it’s now “in the millions.”
Oat Foundry’s split-flap signs have evolved to now include flaps that display pictures, not just letters and numbers, and vibrant colors, not just black and white. Yet they make up just 50 percent of Oat Foundry’s revenue “and falling as we build out other parts of our business,” Kuhn said.
That’s not to say he doesn’t believe there’s a future for Oat Foundry’s signs, whose modern technology enables messages to be changed in real time from a cell phone.