Tom Lix thinks big.
During his 30-year career, this serial entrepreneur has already started and sold several software and technology-related businesses back in his native Boston. He and his wife moved to Cleveland in 2007 to care for an elderly family member. But he was not at all ready to relax into retirement.
Lix's latest idea: Use advanced technology to accelerate the maturation of whiskey, so that it will take weeks, instead of years, to produce fine spirits.
In tribute to his adopted home, Lix named his new company Cleveland Whiskey.
"Whiskey is a $20-billion world market," says Lix. "There are emerging markets in China, India, Russia and Brazil where people are just starting to drink whiskey. We're talking huge numbers of people."
Lix explains that it's very difficult to ramp up production in the traditional process where a fine whiskey might take more than 10 years to mature.
To meet the rapidly growing projected demand, he hopes to commercialize an entirely new technology that will make it faster and cheaper to produce many varieties of fine whiskey. He believes the upwardly aspiring middle class in both developed and developing countries will be receptive to the affordable luxury of designer whiskeys.
Lix proposes to drastically compress what used to be a single 24-hour cycle of temperature and pressure changes into minutes. To achieve this, computer-monitored stainless steel vats will replace traditional oak barrels.
Carefully measured sections of oak and other woods, categorized by surface area, weight and moisture content, are placed inside the vats. These will contribute a whole palette of unique flavors. Pressure cycles, temperature cycles and other factors will be constantly monitored and adjusted by automated equipment.
Starting from a Blank Slate
Lix had already spent considerable time and effort proving his concept in a makeshift basement lab.
To attract serious investors, Lix needed to move to the next level. That meant constructing a fairly sizeable test laboratory equipped with water chillers and heaters, temperature and pressure sensors, water filtration, plumbing, computerized control systems and other laboratory test equipment.
In 2009, Lix set out to search for funding and came across the Cuyahoga County New Product Development Loan Fund, administered by MAGNET. From there it was a short step to renting lab and office space in The Incubator at MAGNET, which also gave him close proximity and easy access to MAGNET's Product Design & Development (PDD) engineering team.
Suddenly, Lix had all the necessary tools at his fingertips: financing, space and expertise.
He met with the PDD team, giving them his rough sketches. Based on their extensive experience, the team suggested modifications for practical and safety reasons.
"There wasn't a straight line to get from point A to point B," adds Lix. "We knew where we wanted to get to, but we didn't know exactly how we were going to get there."
"We had to do some modifications to the room," recalls Mike Pintz, MAGNET senior mechanical design engineer, who oversaw the project. "For example, we had to dig a floor drain in case something leaks. If it spills, we can't be pumping out 300 gallons of 125-proof alcohol. We also had to add increased fire protection."
Using 3D CAD software, the engineers created detailed construction plans. Then Pintz supervised two engineering interns from Cleveland State University's Fenn College of Engineering as they installed a chiller and built three 6-ft.-high rolling test racks to hold 12 five-gallon, stainless-steel tanks.
"I got worried as I was building the chiller stand," says MAGNET intern Michael Clark, a CSU senior. "I must've asked Mike Pintz a hundred times: 'Is this gonna work?! Is this gonna hold?' All he said was: 'I've been doing this for 20 years.'"
"I never leave these guys out to dry," says the laconic Pintz. "But I try to let the students do as much as they can on their own. I try to let them make their own mistakes, even though it might hold things up a bit. That's how they learn."
"For the students, this was a great real-life scenario," says Lix. "They had a lot of responsibility, but I was never worried because I knew Mike Pintz and other senior engineers were always there supervising and making sure things were done right."
For the next six months, Lix watched with amazement as his "mad scientist's" laboratory took form.
Finding the "Land Mines"
Dave Pierson, MAGNET senior design engineer, took charge of creating the interface between the sensors gathering data in the tanks and the computer program that would store and display gigabytes of data collected for analysis.
"Both Mike Pintz and I have been through the product development and equipment design process hundreds of times. So we knew Tom was a little over optimistic with his original plans," Pierson says. "You always know there are land mines that you will step on that you just can't see in the planning process."
Shortly after they put the new test lab into operation, Pierson and Pintz discovered something surprising and completely unexpected.
The engineers had expected the temperature of the liquid inside the vertical, five-gallon tanks to normalize by simple convection. Instead, sensors showed more than 30°F difference between the the top and the bottom of the tank.
They hadn't counted on the wood segments floating in each tank for flavoring. These were impeding normal convection.
"We decided we needed to agitate the mixture to make sure the temperature normalized," says Pintz. "So we set the tanks horizontally in cradles and motorized the cradles to rock back and forth slowly. We think this improvement is also enhancing the acceleration that Tom is looking for."
Although the lab is now finished, Pierson and Pintz continue to monitor the project.
"Every day I download all this data and print it out as charts," says Pierson. "Then Mike takes the graphs and does a masterful tuning job to balance the tanks. "
With the results obtained from his test lab, Lix has applied for a patent and is working on assembling funding to move to the next phase. He says everything they learned from this first phase will be invaluable as he moves toward commercializing the technology.
"The unique thing about MAGNET is the wide range of facilities, equipment and expertise it offers to a small start-up company," says Lix. "I gave them an idea and some rough drawings. They figured out how to make it work, how to operate it. They designed the computer systems. They're always bringing new ideas."
He notes that he couldn't have afforded to hire even one of the interns full time. Because the Incubator at MAGNET and the MAGNET PDD offices are located in the same building, he could quickly check out problems as they arose face-to-face.
Now, when Lix is ready to scale up to actual commercial production, the experience of building a test laboratory will save time and money.
"We learned so much by doing this, that when Tom is ready to scale it up, it will fire up and be able to rock-and-roll straight away," says Pierson with confidence.
"It's been wonderful. In a way, I feel like the MAGNET staff are part of Cleveland Whiskey and I'm a part of MAGNET," says Lix. "I've got tremendous faith and confidence in what they do."
About Cleveland Whiskey
Cleveland Whiskey LLC is an innovative start-up company founded in July 2009. The company's patent-pending, proprietary process will dramatically accelerate the natural processes of aging and maturation for distilled spirits.
With this technology, the company expects to sharply reduce the time-to-market associated with the production of premium whiskey by factors exceeding 36 to 1. Correlated benefits include significant cost reductions and the ability to accurately replicate taste profiles based on rapid prototyping and consumer testing.
During its start-up phase, the company has received funding from the Innovation Fund of the Lorain County Community College Foundation, the Cuyahoga County New Product Development and Entrepreneurship Loan Fund, and the Cuyahoga County North Coast Opportunities Technology Fund.
The company is currently a resident at The Incubator at MAGNET near downtown Cleveland. Contact Tom Lix, voice: 216.881.8481, firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Incubator at MAGNET
The Incubator at MAGNET provides a comprehensive package of business assistance services to support the growth of technology-oriented companies.
Entrepreneurs housed in the 85,000-sq.-ft. MAGNET Innovation Center (MIC), have access to high-quality space and facility amenities targeted to keep costs affordable and allow your business to focus its limited cash and time on its priorities.
To learn more or schedule a site visit, contact Dave Crain, voice: 216.432.5310.