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Aquarium entrepreneurs dive into Pool scholarship

But the effort required to sustain an aquarium – especially one that nurtures a coral reef in a saltwater environment – can be daunting.

Tim Marks ’04 learned that lesson the hard way when he was 13 years old. After maintaining freshwater aquariums for several years, he set up a 10-gallon reef aquarium. But when the greater demands of the marine environment overwhelmed his eighth-grade education, he dismantled his aquarium and quit his new hobby for three years.

Today, Marks and his business partner, Patrick Clasen ’04, aim to make life easier for America’s burgeoning population of novice reef aquarists.

"We want to make it easier for people to get into the hobby," particularly beginners who don’t have much money or people with some experience who are looking to automate," Marks says. "Having had to leave the hobby once gives me a good idea of what our customers need now."

Marks, an environmental engineering major, is co-owner of EcoTech Marine (ETM). Clasen, a materials science and engineering major, is a partner. The company makes and markets equipment that automates the complicated task of feeding a reef aquarium.

The two students recently received grants of $9,000 each through the Leonard P. Pool Memorial Scholarship, one of the top awards given to Lehigh undergraduate students. The prize supports students whose entrepreneurial talents exemplify the life of Leonard Pool, the late chairman of Air Products and Chemicals Inc. in Allentown, who served on Lehigh’s board of trustees.

Marks and Clasen also recently won a $2,000 grant from the Invitation to Innovate contest sponsored by Lehigh’s Integrated Product Development program. In the nine-year-old IPD program, teams of engineering, arts and business students collaborate for one year to make and market products for industrial sponsors.

Marks and Clasen have set up a lab in IPD’s brand-new headquarters in the Wilbur Powerhouse, which gives them access to the latest design software, prototyping equipment, machining instruments and a water-jet cutter. They have recruited six of their friends to their IPD team, giving ETM additional expertise in electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, computer engineering, accounting, and product supply chain management.

The ETM team is working with Todd Watkins, associate professor of economics, and Horace Moo-Young, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, to apply for a $20,000 national grant from the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance.

A business is born

Like many new-millennium business ventures, ETM owes its genesis in part to the Internet. As a senior in high school, Marks successfully returned to his reef aquarium hobby under the online mentorship of Rick Dickens, webmaster of reefs.org.

The following year, as a freshman at Lehigh, Marks met Justin Lawyer, a physics student at Oklahoma State University, in a chat room for reef aquarium enthusiasts. The two students realized they shared a passion for equipment that would automate aquarium maintenance and they traded ideas and 3-D models of potential products over the Internet. Before Marks finished his first year, he and Lawyer launched ETM and developed the ETM Kalkwasser Reactor, a device that automatically replenishes and maintains the levels of the calcium and alkalinity that are vital to the health of coral reefs.

"The goal of a reef aquarium is not just to have a pretty tank but to grow living coral in a saltwater venue by supplying calcium and alkalinity and by using high-intensity lighting," Marks says. "To do that, you need a firm grasp of chemistry and ecology. Justin and I loved the project because it was so complex."

By the end of his sophomore year at Lehigh, Marks and Lawyer had sold 20 reactors. Last fall, as he began his junior year, Marks rented an apartment with Clasen, a fellow entrepreneur who quickly caught reef aquarium fever and joined ETM. Clasen brought to the new company two years of experience selling CUTCO Cutlery for Vector Marketing, during which time he had become the top sales representative in his office and earned a promotion to assistant manager.

`Total freedom'

Of America’s 10 million aquariums, says Marks, nine million are freshwater and one million are saltwater. A small number of the saltwater variety are reef aquariums, in which the goal is to grow live coral, as well as house exotic fish.

The first project Marks and Clasen tackled was to redesign ETM’s calcium reactor by adding a dosing pump and a float switch to produce a more compact, maintenance-free design. They did much of the prototyping of the new reactor in the basement workshop of Marks’s home in Scarsdale, N.Y.

Marks and Clasen are now developing modular products to control other aspects of the reef aquarium, such as water flow, water chemistry and lighting.

IPD has been a boon to ETM, say Marks and Clasen, because of the new members and expertise it brings and because of the facilities at the new Wilbur Powerhouse.

"We need a big group," says Marks, "and IPD has given us a diverse team of engineers and business majors. That’s a company."

"The most valuable education I have gotten at Lehigh has come through IPD," Clasen says. "It gives us access to water-jet cutting instruments, rapid prototyping machines and CNC [computer-numerical control] machines, and teaches us how to use them. It gives us exposure to a variety of other disciplines. It gives us the opportunity to manage a fully functional company as if we owned all the resources.

"Best of all, it gives us total freedom. We can take our ideas as far as we’re willing to push ourselves."

--Kurt Pfitzer
kap4@lehigh.edu

Posted on Monday, August 11, 2003

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