EcoTech Marine's VorTech propellor pump is an innovative solution for reef acquarium enthusiasts.
Tim Marks ’04 and Pat Clasen ’04 have come full circle with Lehigh University’s Integrated Product Development (IPD) program.
Just off Lehigh’s campus, in the house they rented as undergrads, Marks and Clasen run EcoTech Marine LLC, an aquarium equipment company that was their IPD project in 2003.
Now, as they look to double their 2006 sales of $500,000, Marks, Clasen and their business partner, Justin Lawyer, have taken six current Lehigh IPD students under their wing.
In Lehigh’s IPD program, teams of engineering, business and design students work for a year to design, make and market new products for sponsoring companies like GM, B. Braun and even NASA. Students have made more than 300 products in IPD’s 13-year history, including a wheelchair that exercises its owner’s body, a computerized Karate Scoring Apparatus, and a Baseball Radar Gun and Weather Station that tells scouts how a pitcher’s performance varies under different weather conditions.
A handful of IPD teams, including EcoTech Marine, have received funding from Lehigh to form their own companies. EcoTech’s partners are also the first IPD alumni to sponsor IPD students of their own.
EcoTech Marine owes its genesis to the Internet. It was in a chat room for aquarium enthusiasts that Marks met Lawyer, who holds a B.S. in theoretical physics from the University of Oklahoma. The two founded EcoTech Marine in 2001. Clasen joined the company in 2002.
EcoTech’s first product was the ETM Kalkwasser Reactor, which automatically replenishes and maintains levels of calcium and alkalinity in coral reef aquariums. The company’s second product, and source of most of its sales, is the patented VorTech propeller pump.
Magnetic attraction is the key to the VorTech. A magnet enables a motor outside the aquarium to adhere to a propeller inside the tank. The magnet transmits torque from the motor to the interior propeller, which circulates the water inside the aquarium. A knob on the tank’s exterior adjusts the motor’s speed.
The magnet gives the VorTech several advantages. It eliminates the need to drill holes through the side of the aquarium to connect motor and interior propeller. It also eliminates the need to introduce electricity into the tank. And it greatly reduces the amount of heat transferred from motor to tank water.
In addition, the VorTech is much smaller than traditional aquarium pumps.
Last year, EcoTech received a call from a gentleman who had seen the VorTech and thought it might improve the spa industry. The man explained that water was leaking into the motor of his spa, which, as in a typical aquarium, is connected to an interior propeller through a hole in the spa tub wall. The man sent EcoTech a sample spa basin, which is now being studied in the company’s prototype room.
EcoTech recently formed a spinoff company called EcoTech NanoSystems and joined forces with a researcher to seek applications for a surface coating that inhibits the growth of algae and other organisms. The environmentally friendly coating has potential aesthetic and energy-saving benefits.
“I found the patents on the Internet,” says Clasen, “and decided to call him to see if his patents were being commercially used. I was a bit nervous, but I thought, ‘What’s the harm?’ I called, he answered in a scholarly voice, and he told me to contact the tech-transfer office. He’s willing to give us a license, either full or segmented by market. We’re getting outside opinions to examine the viability and profitability of the coating.”
The EcoTech partners are working on this project with Manoj Chaudhury, professor of chemical engineering at Lehigh and a world-renowned expert in adhesion and coatings.
“We’re hoping to develop a commercial coating for the sides of houses, for pools, for patio tiles, for aquariums – wherever there is a need to inhibit the growth of algae,” says Clasen.
EcoTech, which last year received a grant from Pennsylvania’s Keystone Innovation Zone (KIZ) program, is seeking further funding from the Pennsylvania Infrastructure Technology Alliance, the Small Business Development Center, the Pennsylvania Export Finance Program, the Ben Franklin Technology Partners and the Pennsylvania Nanomaterials Commercialization Center.
The funding and financial advice help, as do the varied areas of expertise of EcoTech’s partners – Marks has a B.S. in environmental engineering and an M.S. in mechanical engineering, while Clasen, who holds a B.S. in materials science and engineering, is completing an M.S. in the field. The company also employs a part-time electrical engineer.
But the IPD program was critical to EcoTech’s growth, the partners say.
“IPD gives students a chance at real success, either by working for a company that sponsors your product or by developing your own company into a career,” says Marks. “It’s not just an academic exercise; it’s an entry to the real world.”
The partners are thrilled to return to the IPD program as sponsors.
“It will give me a great amount of pride if we are considered good corporate sponsors,” says Marks.
“It’s a great feeling to be back,” says Clasen. “We just saw our students’ first presentation. They are very excited and proud to be a part of Team EcoTech.”