Published December 23. 2012 4:00AM
Stonington businessman's patents can detect intruders, increase ships' fuel efficiency
Imagine thousands of tiny sensors scattered on the ground near the nation's borders and a series of cameras communicating to a central computer that can interpret the difference between animals and humans.
And then imagine a coating system for the hulls of transport or military ships that can be easily stripped away, reducing the fuel-sucking drag of barnacles while also cutting labor-intensive scraping of boat bottoms.
These are only two of the imaginings that have turned into patents for Mort Wallach, president of Stonington-based PEL Associates, a company that during last month's Innovation Summit in New Haven was named one of 75 Connecticut Tech Companies to Watch for the coming year.
PEL Associates, with an office in the Quiambaug Cove Professional Center and a laboratory in Pawcatuck across from Stonington High School, has been developing an array of technologies since its incubation at the University of Connecticut at Avery Point. And while Wallach runs a sole-proprietor shop, he has a few other associates he calls on as needed while developing partnerships with other technology-savvy entrepreneurs in an effort to spin off new companies.
"One of the long-range goals is to look for investors to exploit our patents," Wallach said. "With investors, we can readily do a number of start-ups."
One of the most interesting of Wallach's ideas involves perimeter security, which has applications along the nation's borders as well as near nuclear power plants, federal and state buildings, airports, military installations, university campuses and elsewhere. Wallach said his system might have averted the disaster earlier this year in Bengazhi, when the U.S. ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed in a terrorist attack.
The system involves using Wallach's patented biodegradable micro sensors that come in various colors to match the local terrain and send out fluorescent signals by day and infrared notices by night. These so-called smart sensors, which cost only a few dollars apiece and can be sown on the ground quickly and easily, are set off when disturbed and can be integrated with a camera system and computer program to interpret whether the interloper is a man, animal or vehicle.
"There's a high probability of detection," Wallach said. "This one is easy to do - that's why it's moved quickly."
Moving with slightly less alacrity is Wallach's other major project, involving a so-called "smart coating" system that can be placed on ship hulls to provide an anti-fouling device and installed on ship decks and aircraft as a de-icing agent. Wallach said the system, which has been tested in his laboratory, will reduce the labor of scraping ship hulls from crud that accumulates during voyages and estimates that the reduced drag on a boat could save 10 percent to 20 percent on fuel costs.
Wallach, a former Fulbright Scholar who worked at the chemical giant DuPont for a number of years, estimated the market for ship hull coatings alone at about $5 billion a year. He said the coating likely will be put through its paces in the coming months by a Connecticut shipping company that appears willing to put a test strip on one of its hulls.
"This could be our first client," he said.
Wallach said both projects are coming to fruition at once, and he is talking to some large defense contractors as well as marketing experts in anticipation of launching the businesses as entities separate from PEL Associates. He has been working to get support from the state Department of Economic and Community Development and Connecticut Innovations, but so far has not received funding for these projects, perhaps, he said, because the state is focusing on other entrepreneurial categories, such as biotechnology and information technoology.
Wallach, a Groton resident, said each of his ideas could add a couple dozen jobs to Connecticut's economy within five years, with more created in the future.
Wallach said one problem he's having in gaining acceptance for his ideas is that these are completely new concepts, rather than tweakings of products that have worked in the past. He's hopeful that continuing talks with potential partners, combined with appearances before venture capitalists in California and elsewhere will lead to the launch of two new businesses in the next eight to 10 months.
"I want to get something going," he said. "But it can't go with just me."