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Aquarium technologists catch a strong wave

Clasen, Lawyer and Marks stand alongside an aquarium tank equipped with one of EcoTech Marine’s patented VorTech propeller pumps.

EcoTech Marine, an aquarium-technology company founded by two recent alumni, has become the 302nd fastest-growing company in America, according to Inc. magazine’s 2010 survey of the nation’s top 500 and 5,000 private companies.

The South Bethlehem enterprise was also ranked number 18 in the category for top consumer products and services companies in Inc.’s 500|5000 list.

EcoTech Marine was cofounded by Tim Marks ’04, ’06G and Pat Clasen ’04, ’07G as a result of their participation in Lehigh’s Integrated Product Development (IPD) program. Justin Lawyer, an alumnus of the University of Oklahoma, is the company’s third cofounder.

Since its launch, EcoTech Marine has established itself as one of the United States’ leading manufacturers of reef aquarium propeller pumps. The company earned about $343,000 in revenues in 2006 and more than $3.8 million in 2009 to achieve a 995-percent growth rate in three years.

“We are thrilled about making the Inc. 500 list,” says Clasen, now the company’s director of finance. “Looking back to our time in college, Lehigh’s support of young entrepreneurs facilitated the company’s early years. This achievement has really been a team effort.”

Enduring ties to Lehigh

EcoTech Marine’s ties to Lehigh have grown stronger in the last few years. Among its 15 local employees are Jay Sperandio ’01, ’09G, director of sales and a Lehigh MBA graduate. Engineers Mark Lindenmoyer ’05, ’06G and Jeff Merten ’10 also work for EcoTech Marine, as does mechanical engineering intern Mike Sandford ’10, ’11G.

The company also has forged business partnerships with Altitude Marketing, whose founder, Andrew Stanten ’99G, also holds an MBA from Lehigh. The president of the group’s accounting firm is Lehigh MBA graduate Colleen Krcelich ’01G.

Hatched as an idea during an IPD class, EcoTech Marine won the grand prize at Lehigh’s 2002-03 Joan F. & John M. Thalheimer ‘55 Student Entrepreneurs Competition.

In the IPD program, teams of engineering, business and design students work for a year to design, make and market new products for sponsoring companies. EcoTech Marine’s partners were the first IPD alumni to sponsor IPD students of their own.

Besides the Thalheimer award, EcoTech Marine has won competitive grants from the Southside Bethlehem Keystone Innovation Zone, the Pennsylvania Infrastructure Technology alliance, Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Pennsylvania and the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance. The company has also received assistance from the Small Business Development Center and the Manufacturers Resource Center, both on Lehigh’s campus.

“EcoTech is a terrific story and a great example of how broad the support infrastructure is for startups at Lehigh and the Lehigh Valley,” says Todd Watkins, executive director of Lehigh’s Dexter F. Baker Institute for Entrepreneurship, Creativity and Innovation. “One of their secrets to success has been their tenacity over the years in reaching out and taking advantage of all these programs.

“EcoTech has also been great about giving back their time and sharing insights with later generations of students in many of our programs.”

Having aggressively cornered the competitive aquarium pump market, EcoTech Marine is considering an expansion into similar markets such as home spas, medical spas, and professional day spas. But its core strength continues to be in saltwater reef aquariums, where slight changes in current and temperature can significantly harm fish and other organisms.

Recently, the company publicly previewed another new product, the MP60w ES Propeller Pump, designed for tanks with up to a one-inch glass thickness that hold from 120  to more than 1,000 gallons. The company claims the new pump has the smallest in-tank footprint of commercially available pumps.

Companies in Inc.’s 2010 500|5000 list are ranked according to percentage revenue growth from 2006 through 2009. They must have been founded and started generating revenue by June 30, 2006, and they must be a privately held, for profit, and independent U.S. company in order to qualify.

 

Photo by Douglas Benedict

Story by Tom Yencho

Posted on Tuesday, September 14, 2010

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