BOLTON — The most promising new green technology company in Connecticut — as judged by the Connecticut Technology Council back in 2011 — bought the patent for its product for $1.
Several years ago, Doug Rode, now managing partner of the company, Centritec Seals LLC, got a call out of the blue from Herman Ernst, a former engineering colleague at Hartford Steam Boiler.
"I don't want my patents to go to my grave." Ernst, now 83, told Rode. Ernst had developed a non-contact seal to protect bearings that used centrifugal pressure to keep water and grit away from the lubricated bearings.
"He made it in his garage," said Rode. "He was always the type of engineer that was hands on. It worked fine but he could never get it going."
The seal had been tested on railroad car wheels in Switzerland, so Rode thought he might be able to sell it to Metro-North.
Rode, 61, has run a five-person engineering and risk management consulting business for 11 years, but decided to launch Centritec to sell this seal. He works half-time with his consulting business and half-time on Centritec.
When he decided to become self-employed after a career working for big companies such as Combustion Engineering and Hartford Steam Boiler, he knew it was risky.
"I said to my wife: 'How much do you love me, dear?'" he remembered. He said he warned her: "'I may lose our savings, our stocks.' Which I did, very efficiently."
Rode said several of the last 11 years were so busy that he made as much as he did in management at Hartford Steam Boiler. "The peaks are fantastic, but if you're not prudent and put some money away, the valleys are terrible. That's why I sold my majority share" in Centritec. "I knew we needed more capital."
"It was one thing to make one in your garage," he said, but to make a seal in mass production, even at an expert manufacturer like Carlyle Johnson, is another. Carlyle Johnson, a brakes manufacturer that has its headquarters in Bolton and a second plant in Warwick, R.I., started out as an investor and now owns Centritec.
Centritec didn't have its first sale until 2012. This year it has had two sales, to a spindle manufacturer and to NAES Corp., a contractor at Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority that maintains large fans at its waste-processing sites.
Total sales in 2013 have been less than $100,000, Rode said.
Although he was thrilled Centritec was honored when it was so new, Rode said it's been a long road of testing, market research and sales pitches.
"We learned so much about the railroad industry we started to regret we started looking at the railroad industry," Rode said.
The U.S. market is full of barriers, he said. It would cost more than $200,000 just to get certified to sell the seals. Also, bearings manufacturers tend to differentiate themselves by the seals they offer in a bearings/seals package deal, and giant corporations like The Timken Co. dominate the railroad market. Timken formerly had operations in Torrington and Watertown, including the old Torrington Co, which made bearings.
And while Rode's spreadsheets show his design to be more efficient than the cheapest lip seals, the U.S. freight car market is already shifting to higher quality non-contact and labyrinth seals, so the energy savings argument becomes harder to make. Changing from lip seals to Centritec seals would reduce diesel burn by 5 percent, he says.
Even with these barriers, Rode said he thinks Centritec could easily have double the sales in 2014 that it had this year.
He had thought he was in final negotiations to sell 1,200 seals to a French company in the railroad industry, but he said the person he was talking with has left the company so now he thinks the sale might not close until next year.
"We have forecasted in five years, this could be a $3 million business," he said.
John Ferland, a planner with NAES Corp., said his company bought 8-inch seals for large fans because moisture and dirt was getting into the labyrinth seals/bearings assembly. After a year, he said, the bearings would start to fail, the fan would start to vibrate, and then crews would have to take the fan apart and replace the bearings. Ferland said if you didn't change them, "it would eventually render it inoperable."
The company is testing both Centritec seals and Impro Seals, and both are performing well so far, but they have been in place for less than six months.
"They look like they're going to be fantastic," he said.
For such a small order, the seals cost hundreds of dollars, but for the large order, where they can do stamping, the seals will cost $40. For some customers he negotiated with, he found Centritec couldn't drive enough costs out of the seals at the volume they needed to make it competitive.
"How do you get your product in the field, in operation? That really is the challenge," he said. "You can talk all you want about test results," he said, but customers "are all from Missouri — show me. Nobody wants to be the first in the industry."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun