Inventors Digest will showcase the participating E-Teams, and will also host a new online video competition for the participating teams (more information about this competition, which will have a cash prize of $1000, will be announced shortly!).
Update: Our media partner, Inventors Digest, has announced a new competition for collegiate students: the 2010 Collegiate Alt-Energy Innovation Contest. Details about the competition will be announced at March Madness for the Mind on March 26-27, 2010.
In his latest look at the year's coolest inventions, NPR's Guy Raz interviews Eben Bayer of Ecovative Design, a 2007 NCIIA E-Team. Listen to the interview or read the transcript... Some key takeways: Greensulate and Ecocradle perform as well as synthetic products, but require a fraction of the energy to produce; Greensulate and Ecocradle are formed from natural materials and processes (so, waste packaging should end up in your compost bin, not a landfill); while you could eat Greensulate, it wouldn't taste good.
Update: More kudos for Ecovative: 'One to watch' as noted by Popular Science.
March Madness for the Mind, the NCIIA's annual showcase of student innovation, will be held at the nearby Exploratorium Museum.
Travel and directions The main airport in San Francisco in San Francisco International. SFI is about 12 miles from the Hilton Financial District. You can then take the BART (or a taxi) to the hotel:
Ground transportation and directions to the hotel (from SFI) The Hilton has these suggestions.
Bay Area Rapid Transport (BART) system We encourage you to use the BART, San Francisco's public transport system, to travel between SFI and the Hilton. It's the cheapest (approx $4) and greenist option.
from SFI, take the yellow line to the Montgomery Street Station (30 minute ride). It's a 11-minute walk to the Hilton Financial District.
Amid all the talk these days about elevator pitches and equity, burn rate and liquidation, preferred stock and venture fairs, we present to you one simple and reassuring fact: you don’t have to get fancy angel or VC funding to succeed. In fact, in certain situations you might be better off without it. Such is the story of EcoTech Marine, a team of students with enough entrepreneurial spirit and drive to take a product all the way to market themselves, with a minimum of private investment. This profile follows EcoTech’s story from idea to prototype to successful company, detailing exactly how they got the money at each step along the way.
Humble beginnings But first we need to back up—way up, to when EcoTech co-founder Tim Marks was in eighth grade. After getting “fish fever” and maintaining freshwater aquariums for several years, Marks set up a ten-gallon “reef” aquarium, nurturing live corals and other organisms in a saltwater environment. But Marks soon discovered that maintaining a reef aquarium is a complex task that practically requires a chemistry degree, to say nothing of time and effort invested. When the demands of the tank overwhelmed his eighth-grade education, Marks dismantled it and quit the hobby altogether.
Fast-forward to his senior year in high school, when, thanks in part to the Internet, Marks caught fish fever again. He was mentored online by Rick Dickens, webmaster of reefs.org, a popular online resource for reef keepers. The following year, as a freshman at Lehigh University, Marks met Justin Lawyer, a physics student at Oklahoma State University, in a chat room for reef enthusiasts. The two students realized they shared a vision of equipment that would automate the difficult task of reef aquarium maintenance, and they traded ideas and 3-D models of potential products. Before Marks finished his freshman year, using nothing but small amounts of their own personal funding he and Lawyer launched a full-fledged company, calling it EcoTech Marine.2 Their goal? Become a provider of innovative, high-end, automated equipment for serious aqua hobbyists.
Hard work and grant writing There was much work to be done, however. Doing most of the prototyping in the basement workshop of Marks’ home, the team built a prototype of its first product: the Kalkwasser Reactor, a device that automatically replenishes and maintains an aquarium’s calcium and alkalinity levels, vital to the health of corals.3 It was a rough alpha version, though: they needed several thousand more dollars to develop the device fully. “We’d been funding the venture ourselves for several years,” said Patrick Clasen, a fellow student entrepreneur at Lehigh who quickly caught reef fever and joined EcoTech. “But that was no longer cutting it.”
The team decided to submit the reactor in the Invitation to Innovate contest sponsored by the Integrated Product Development (IPD) program at Lehigh. IPD is a comprehensive entrepreneurship training program in which teams of engineering, arts, and business students collaborate for one year to make and market products. EcoTech won the contest, getting $2,000 and the chance to work with business and engineering students for two semesters, all in preparation to submit an NCIIA Advanced E-Team grant proposal.
They did submit, and received $8,380 in NCIIA funding, mostly for prototyping. By the end of his sophomore year at Lehigh, Marks and his team had sold twenty reactors and seemed well on their way. But at the same time Marks knew that EcoTech needed more than just one product to be a viable business. “As it turned out,” says Marks, “the reactor project didn’t go as far as we hoped. But it did get our foot in the door in terms of business, manufacturing, and design experience. And, most importantly, it was the stepping-stone in terms of the next product we developed, which has been very successful.”
VorTech™ to the fore Like so many other entrepreneurial successes, the turning point for EcoTech came when it made contact with an industry player. At a local reef club meeting Marks met Andy Howard, President of IceCap, Inc., a well known name in the reef aquarium hobby. Marks and Howard connected, and Marks mentioned an idea for what he called the VorTech, a new circulating pump for aquariums that would mimic a natural wave-like water flow and minimize the intrusion of heat and bulky equipment inside the tank. Howard, it turned out, was working on an idea for a battery-powered backup circulating system for aquariums, which would require a pump. The two ideas meshed: as a new company, EcoTech needed industry support to launch the product successfully, and IceCap wanted a discrete, high-end pump for their backup system. Marks and Howard arranged a formal meeting, signed nondisclosure agreements, and Marks brought to the table two different pump ideas. Says Marks, “IceCap immediately gravitated toward the VorTech, saying, ‘We want that, build us that!’ That’s when we really turned it into high gear and started product development.”
Meanwhile In the meantime the EcoTech team members had completed their undergraduate degrees. But the project was far from over: they both stayed at Lehigh and continued to work on EcoTech, with Marks enrolled in the master of engineering in mechanical engineering program with a focus in IPD, while Clasen pursued a master’s in materials science and engineering. Their tuition was paid for, and they received stipends. Marks even became an IPD teaching assistant, helping undergraduates with their entrepreneurial projects.
More news came in on the money front: EcoTech received another Advanced E-Team grant from the NCIIA, this time for $18,738; through Lehigh they won a $9,000 “Agile Manufacturing” grant to help with tooling and production; they won $15,000 from the State of Pennsylvania as part of the Keystone Innovation Zone (KIZ) program, designed to prevent brain-drain and keep Pennsylvania-based ideas within state boundaries; and lastly, they secured a line of credit from a local bank. The line of credit, Marks says, is especially nice as a fall-back plan. “Because of the line of credit, we’re assured that if we need more money, we can get it. If we need to increase production quantities, or if things slow down, the line of credit gives us that insurance. It’s a good thing to have.”
And while not every team at Lehigh receives free office space and lab equipment, EcoTech did. According to Marks, EcoTech secured the space and equipment “just based on the fact that we had been doing this so long and were so dedicated.”
The ramp-up In partnership with IceCap, EcoTech developed a polished prototype of the VorTech pump and debuted it on the market successfully in 2005. The specialized pump is now sold through a variety of online reef equipment companies, and the future of the product and the company is bright. “We’re getting our first product out the door now,” says Marks. “Product has shipped and more product will ship soon.”
And EcoTech isn’t stopping at the VorTech. “We’re developing a remote control for the VorTech right now,” says Marks, “and we have a number of other products in mind. Eventually we want to launch a complete line of products for advanced aquarists, a line of products that will completely automate the reef-keeping experience.”
Using a mish-mash of funding sources—NCIIA grants, personal money, Lehigh prize money, State of Pennsylvania money, bank money, and finally corporate partner money—EcoTech grew their venture from the ground up, their way.
The story of John Fabel teaches us that when it comes to entrepreneurial endeavors, failure isn’t always a bad thing: new opportunities arise, lessons are learned, people move forward. In this profile we take you through John’s story, from invention to incorporation to bankruptcy to eventual success, and find out what he learned along the way.
Suspension bridges and backpacks After long hours of cross-country skiing, Fabel, an outdoor enthusiast, noticed that his backpack bruised his shoulders. A lifelong designer and inventor with a knack for looking at things differently, Fabel began to wonder if he could create a better, less taxing backpack.
While marveling at the suspension bridges on a trip to New York City, he found the answer.
“When I used a hip belt to transfer the backpack’s weight to my hips, I still got sore shoulders. So the problem wasn’t the shoulder straps. The problem was how the weight wanted to fall back, away from your body. So I started thinking, ‘What if I could design a backpack that would get the weight to pull toward your back rather than away from it?’”
“After I saw the Brooklyn Bridge, I started thinking about how to build a hip pack that would distribute the weight evenly, like a suspension bridge.”
In a suspension bridge, huge main cables extending from one end to the other hold up the roadway. The cables rest on top of towers and are secured at each end by anchorages. Instead of relying on shoulder straps to carry the load, Fabel designed a backpack that transfers much of the weight to the hips. When wearing it, your hips act like a tower on a suspension bridge, the backpack is similar to the roadway, and the triangular flap between the backpack and the hip belt—like the cables on the bridge—distributes the weight evenly.
Fabel called the invention BioSpan, patented it, and in 1993 began work in earnest on a company built around the technology, EcoTrek.
I don’t care if it’s made from uranium, I want one Fabel went through the standard steps in creating EcoTrek: he performed a feasibility study, formed a management team, put together a business plan, did research and development, created a core line of products, found a manufacturing partner, and secured seed financing. By the time he was starting EcoTrek, Fabel had for years been interested in environmental sustainability, and he designed EcoTrek’s product line accordingly: the equipment was made from 85% recycled materials (the fabric was made from soda bottles, the buckles from recycled industrial nylon, etc.), and the products were made to be recycled themselves, designed for disassembly in such a way that everything could be broken down into individual parts in about three steps. This “green” approach, Fabel reasoned, would surely resonate with backpackers and outdoor enthusiasts. “The products were designed for use in the environment by people who love being in the environment,” said Fabel. “So our idea was, ‘Let’s make our products both fun and coherent within that larger notion.’”
Fabel received plenty of positive feedback. EcoTrek was featured in several prominent publications, environmentalists were happy there was a green alternative in outdoor equipment, and people truly enjoyed wearing the BioSpan backpack. Once, when Fabel was hiking with Everest IMAX film creator David Breashears, he asked David how he liked the backpack and if he appreciated that it was made from 85% recycled materials. “I don’t care if it’s made from uranium,” Breashears said. “I want one.”
Because Fabel put the green aspect of EcoTrek first, he decided to go forward with an unusual marketing strategy for outdoor equipment: direct marketing. “It’s very difficult to market green products in that, in the retail environment where most outdoor equipment is sold, it’s very hard to communicate the green attributes,” said Fabel. “More customer education than usual needs to take place, and the retail environment doesn’t lend itself very well to that. So we made the decision to concentrate on direct marketing because we thought we would be able to much more powerfully communicate our green values to our target customers.”
“But unless you hit your target, it’s very expensive.”
Misfiring EcoTrek’s sales flopped the first time out. According to Fabel, this happened for several reasons: “Number one, people don’t buy backpacks through the mail. Oops! Second, we misjudged the greenness of the outdoor market. It’s no greener than any other market. Although they may appreciate the green values more, it’s still a tertiary value: performance comes first. We had our message exactly wrong.”
The team shifted to a retail strategy and immediately started gaining traction, going through three rounds of manufacturing with still more orders to fill. “We couldn’t make them fast enough,” said Fabel. But by that time they were out of money. “We had so much debt load, we didn’t have the resources to adequately pull off the retail marketing strategy even though we were getting signs that everything was turning around. We were constantly scrabbling behind. Combined with insufficient startup capital, our failed initial marketing strategy cost us the company. The initial marketing strategy was fundamentally flawed because when you put on the BioSpan backpack, you ‘get it’ in a very visceral way: people almost inevitably smile when they put it on. Yet we initially had a marketing strategy that took that experience totally out of the loop.”
“When we closed the company down we had orders we couldn’t fill because we didn’t have the money to manufacture them.”
The quick rebound Despite EcoTrek’s failure it was clear Fabel had something in BioSpan. About a month after he put the company down Fabel got a phone call from Marmot, a leader in the outdoor equipment industry. Said Fabel, “Every time Marmot introduces a new product line they want a flagship innovation that strengthens their brand image of being innovators. They saw BioSpan as a technology that fit within their brand image.” Marmot hired Fabel to build a backpack line around BioSpan, and because he had developed the technology and still owned the patent rights, he licensed the patent to the company. The line of products exceeded Marmot’s expectations, with one of the backpacks earnings the highest ratings in its category.
So EcoTrek certainly wasn’t a total loss. “A lot of the value of the BioSpan product concept was developed through the work of EcoTrek,” said Fabel. “Even though EcoTrek itself wasn’t successful, the idea was. It had some very successful outcomes.”