Academic journal article Journal of the International Academy for Case Studies

To Disrupt or Not Disrupt the Industrial Fluid Valve Industry

Academic journal article Journal of the International Academy for Case Studies

To Disrupt or Not Disrupt the Industrial Fluid Valve Industry

Article excerpt

After a career of nearly fifteen years in the corporate world followed by twenty in academia, Barth Strempek was sitting in his office at a university in central North Carolina wondering if he should take the plunge into real entrepreneurship at the age of 56. An opportunity of significant proportions had fallen in his lap. It was November of 2008 and he had spoken with Gene Feild only a month earlier after being out of touch for over six years. It was somewhat unexpected to receive the phone call from Susan Ferm informing him that the inventor had passed away from heart and lung failure at the age of 91. Susan was the daughter of Richard Ferm, retired Ph.D. chemist and Gene's longtime friend and colleague. Following almost twenty-five years, three company start-ups, and his most recent attempts to resurrect and commercialize the revolutionary non-turbulent valve technology he had invented, Gene had finally run out of steam in a nursing home in northern California.

BACKGROUND

Strempek first met Gene in 1999 when he struck up a conversation while having dinner at adjacent tables at the Mayflower Seafood Restaurant. Learning during their conversation that Strempek had been a civil engineer early in his career, Gene said that he had something to show him. Gene joined him at the table where, on a paper napkin, he drew a sketch of the internal topology of a unique fluid valve that he had invented over a dozen years earlier. Strempek politely listened and watched as the drawing took shape, not expecting anything of importance to come of it. As Gene explained the workings of the device, Strempek became increasingly more interested and could envision how fluid could flow smoothly through the device. His former engineering training led him to believe that this might actually be the "real deal" and not just the pipedream of an old man. He knew that valves were fairly crude mechanical devices and their basic designs had not changed much in nearly a century. All high performance valves are plagued by internal turbulence creating an array of problems including cavitation (imploding gas bubbles which erode valve seats), leakage, vibration, noise, imprecise control, and longevity issues. A truly laminar-flow (non-turbulent) valve would be the holy grail of fluid control--if it were true.

After drawing the diagram, for the next two hours Gene told Barth the story of how he arrived at his breakthrough idea to improve car wash valves and how, over the previous dozen years, he had founded three companies to develop and commercialize the product. His most recent enterprise, Feild Technologies LLC (FTL), had taken the original flat-plate technology and added the ability to balance the valve for both input and output pressures allowing actuation (opening and closing) with only a small force. This advancement allowed high-performance (high flows and/or pressures) valves to be controlled entirely by hand or by very small motors. This full-balance technology had not yet been patented but presented the possibility of renewed protection beyond the remaining life of the original patents. A patent application for the full-balance valve had been drafted and was nearly ready to be filed with the US Patent Office.

For three years Barth assisted Gene in identifying potential demo applications and attracting additional entrepreneurial resources. He also invested a modest sum in FTL to maintain the foreign patent annuities on the original flat-plate valve technology which had about five years remaining at the time. In return for this investment Strempek received a small share of FTL. For numerous reasons unrelated to the technology (Gene's age, lack of definitive test data, lack of funds, a non-business-oriented inventor) they were unable to conclude several promising deals. At the last minute, Gene invariably rejected every one. In 2002, Professor Strempek received a large Federal grant (FIPSE) from the US Department of Education to develop an integrated business curriculum and entrepreneurship program. …

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