Traverse City innovators sail through turbulent times

Traverse City – Here is some advice for companies interested in innovation: Don't just wait for the proverbial flash of inspiration. Build up expertise in your chosen area, too.

That, at least, is the lesson that can be drawn from a number of technologies and processes that Traverse City companies have developed.

For their latest rounds of innovation, specialists at local companies reached into deep reservoirs of expertise, whether it was experience in plastics, sail-making, thermoelectric exchanges, or heating and cooling devices.

There were certainly flashes of inspiration along the way, but they would likely have burned brightly and then died away without the expertise to fuel them. A focus on customer needs was important, too. It pushed companies to greater exertion and in new directions.

The firms indeed built the proverbial better mouse trap, succeeding in part because their corporate history was jam-packed with advances relating to the invention they had in mind.

iQ puts a wind in Quantum's sails

People might have suspected that Traverse City-based Quantum Sail had some special edge when its sailboat won the Audi Medcup, the Grand Prix circuit of sailing, in the Mediterranean in 2008. And they would have been right, the company says.

The firm, which has grown out of a 30-year-old Traverse City sail-making operation, says its advantages were related to the skills of its sail designers and iQ, an advanced, computer-based design technology.

Like the software sometimes used in motor vehicle and boat design, Quantum's proprietary program incorporates the laws of physics (more specifically, the laws of fluid dynamics) that affect sailboats out in the wind and on the water.

The program is extremely good at maximizing a boat's performance, whether it's a top-of-the-line racer or a more typical cruiser, the company says.

While software based on fluid dynamics has been around for a while, Quantum has refined its version far beyond past levels, said Mark Fiegel, the company's manager of North American sales. Quantum designers and other specialists created the program and related processes.

Since it has the technology in-house (and doesn't have to turn to an outside contractor), it is at liberty to extend the benefits of CFD to sailors far and wide. It is also considering boat builders as clients.

"We are trying to work this technology into every sail," Fiegel said. "What does it mean for cruising sailors? It means that the boat will go faster when a puff of wind comes along."

According to the company, the program makes adjustments for the sea and wind conditions that a boat is likely to experience. Weight distribution and the amount of equipment are also taken into account.

Fiegel says racing has been "an opportunity to test sails at the highest end and in the most extreme conditions. And then the advances trickle down to our everyday sailors.

"It's the same reason an auto company might be involved in Formula One racing," he said. "You and I won't buy a Formula One car, but we might buy a Ford."

Fiegel points to the 2008 victory of the company's sailboat, Quantum Racing, in the Audi MedCup, a 53-race circuit, as evidence of iQ's benefits. The boat beat out more than a dozen competitors during the season. Each was equipped with sails made by Quantum's chief rival, industry giant North Sails.

At that time, the company was anxious to prove itself, Fiegel said. "Ed Reynolds, our president, thought that our technology was so good and our sails were so good, we needed to tell the story."

Power from a tiny source

When Traverse City-based Tellurex Corp. announced its PG-1 thermoelectric power generator a few weeks ago, it had a great many uses in mind.

With heat from a canned fuel or other similar source, the tiny unit could generate enough electricity to power a cell phone, small radio, music device, GPS or other direct-current devices in remote, off-the-grid locations or in emergency situations.

Tellurex immediately started getting calls from the academic community, engineers and camping enthusiasts about potential uses for the product. But one suggestion from a Florida company was a surprise.

The customer's idea was to attach the unit (or a device very much like it) to the side of an enclosed charcoal griller so the heat generated during cooking could charge up batteries and devices. Like the canned fuel source, the barbecue grill would provide heat energy that would be converted into electricity.

The objective is to create a stove for people in Third World countries that would simultaneously cook food and power small electrical devices. In the process, their quality of life could be immensely improved.

Tellurex is working with the company in a study of this application, said Dennis Curtice, sales manager at Tellurex. "We have one of the cook stoves here that they have already sent us, along with some of their briquets.

"We have to work with the company and design a device that can charge a battery and give the users six, seven or eight hours of run time before the battery discharges."

The PG-1 relies on the Seebeck effect to generate electricity by creating a temperature differential between two sides of a module. The device generates about three-quarters of a watt, and its direct current voltage can be set anywhere from three to 14 volts, depending on the device being powered.

"There is only one other company on the market that does anything close to this, and its device only generates millivolts, not volts," Curtice said. "This is useful for people who need six or nine or 12 volts."

It's no accident that Tellurex is active in this area. It makes thermoelectric cup holders that heat and cool beverages in the Chrysler Sebring, Dodge Avenger, and the Cadillac Escalade Platinum. The company also develops thermoelectric modules for cooling and electric power generation.

The whole field of thermoelectric power generation is promising, Curtice said.

"Everyone is looking at how to somehow capture excess heat and generate electricity for lights and sensors," he said. "People are putting devices on catalytic converters to generate electricity that will go back into the battery system."

Bagging major

pharmaceutical deals

The Plascon Group manufactures its plastic biopharmaceutical bags for a variety of purposes within research settings. They are a far cry from the popular conception of a plastic bag as just a repository for waste or groceries.

"These are made from very, very high-tech plastic materials. They can't have any animal derivatives in them," said David Peterson, Plascon's president. "You see the lowest tech plastic bag when you go to the grocery store, and ours are pretty much the highest tech plastic bags that you will find."

The bags start as a sketch on a paper, and the concept is fleshed out in computer-aided design drawings. During production, a serial number is placed on every single bag. "If there is a failure in the field, we have to have 100 percent traceability," he said.

One recent project has given Plascon a major role in the development of treatments for hepatitis C. A biotech firm is now growing duckweed, an aquatic plant, in large Plascon plastic bags. Then proteins are extracted from the plant with the help of small, filter-equipped bags that Plascon also produces.

The proteins are key ingredients in Locteron, a new drug that may prove effective in treating Hepatitis C. It is in the last stage of approval from the FDA.

The duckweed bags are by "far the highest tech thing we are doing here," said Peterson. "It is cutting edge. The whole plant derivative segment of the pharmaceutical industry is high tech.

"For us, the biopharmaceutical market is growing at a rate of at least 30 percent a year. I see it as the future of our company."

The comparatively low cost of research into biopharmaceuticals is driving the expansion. "Believe it or not, tobacco plants are on the forefront of that technology. Researchers are finding that parts of that plant can be used to create drugs that can save lives," he said.

It took Plascon nearly two years to fully develop the bags for the duckweed plants. It then became the exclusive supplier of the product to Locteron researchers. A Plascon patent is pending.

Plascon is also one of eight companies in the world producing multilayered bags for transporting blood and blood products. Some of its other bags are used as mixing chambers for testing new drugs.

Researchers pour blood inside the bags and then use the multiple ports (or entry points) on the bags to inject other substances in the course of tests. Plascon's partner, Flex Concepts in Logan, Utah, irradiates the bags to assure sterility.

Plascon also produces "chill bags" to keep food fresh and biodegradable trash bags, among other products. Some of its trash bags are now being market-tested in Target stores. New municipal laws, especially in California, are increasing the demand for biodegradable bags in grocery stores.

Cool military lasers

Opti Temp says it provides "the optimum temperature to your process," and the defense industry takes the Traverse City company at its word.

On laser projects, for instance, military contractors routinely call on Opti Temp to keep the water that cools their devices within one degree of the specified temperature.

"Our equipment cools the water to very fine tolerances," said Daniel Dorn, vice president in charge of engineering at Opti Temp.

Defense contractors "actually like to have it within a couple tenths of a degree when you are supplying cooling water to lasers." he said. Variations in temperature cause the quality of beam to deteriorate.

The Traverse City firm designs and builds heating and cooling systems for welders, semiconductors, plastics operations and many other applications. Although they heat and cool, these machines aren't found in the appliance area of your local department store – Opti Temp manufactures them for industrial and defense uses and they are typically inside a much larger system.

"We are engineers and designers helping people with industrial equipment that has too high a temperature or too low a temperature," Dorn said.

One of Opti Temp's recent projects fell squarely in the defense category. The company just designed and built a device to cool an airborne laser system for a military contractor. "This is the third or fourth version that we have built, and each one is a little bit larger than the last," Dorn said.