Torchbearers for Innovation
Jeff and Rick Erickson dream of a world in which lazy Sunday mornings aren’t interrupted by noisy neighbors’ lawnmowers, snowblowers and chain saws.
A quieter engine designed by their late father, Frederick Erickson, makes that world possible.
The challenge facing the brothers and their company, Engine Research Associates Inc., is getting enough money to adapt the internal-combustion engine for multiple commercial uses, including a quieter dental drill.
For now, the Fort Wayne startup is focused on filling two Defense Department contracts for quiet, lightweight, low-vibration engines used to power surveillance drones.
The Ericksons are among several people being honored Thursday evening by the Better Business Bureau serving Northern Indiana with Torch Awards for having ethical business practices.
“My mom and dad didn’t put up with any kind of lying,” Jeff Erickson said. “You’re either a person of integrity or you’re not.”
That philosophy has guided them to always do the right thing by customers, he added.
Karl LaPan, president and CEO of the Northeast Indiana Innovation Center, submitted the nomination. The Ericksons have grown the company with the Innovation Center’s help.
“Jeff (Erickson) is a passionate leader engaged in bringing his father’s dreams to reality,” LaPan wrote. “He has created a family atmosphere in his company, and he ‘walks the talk.’ He leads by example (and) his personal and professional commitment to excellence can be felt in each and every interaction with him.”
The Ericksons co-own Engine Research Associates with their sister, Rhonda Godfrey, and their father’s former Magnavox colleague, George Lewis. Magnavox Corp. is now Raytheon Systems Co.
Fred Erickson, who died in 2004, designed motors as a hobby. He received his first patent in 1972 after inventing the Erickson Migrating Combustion Chamber internal combustion engine, which his sons describe as radically different from conventional two-stroke, four-stroke, compression ignition and rotary engines.
The Erickson engine uses an orbiting piston in a scotch yoke mechanism. The result is a high-torque engine that is smaller, lighter, quieter and more fuel efficient and with less vibration. Because the engine’s exhaust is cool, it’s more difficult for heat-detecting systems to pick up a drone’s presence.
The engine can run on various fuels, including diesel and jet fuel, offering flexibility to U.S. troops, who don’t like to transport highly combustible gasoline, Jeff Erickson said.
Engine Research Associates won its first government contract in 1998 to design motors for unmanned surveillance drones. The two-year deal brought the firm about $1 million. Afterward, research and development money for drones dried up for about a decade, Jeff Erickson said.
The startup landed its second Defense Department contract in 2008. The firm is now working on two government requests. One is a two-year, $748,000 contract to develop a larger version of the Erickson engine for the Air Force. The other is for $2.78 million to develop a generator motor for the Army.
Lewis said the military market has been good for the company because it provides money to research and develop new technologies. But the tipping point for making big money with the invention will come when the Ericksons can find a path to commercialize the invention.
Engine Research Associates achieved commercial success once with model airplane engines, which it sold internationally. But fewer people are investing time and money in model airplanes these days, Jeff Erickson said. Instead, teens are content to stay inside and play on their gaming systems.
The Ericksons don’t know when their big break will come – or which market will welcome their non-conventional engine. But whenever it happens, they’re ready.
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