Not every tech “startup” is run by Millennials hungry for a quick rise to fame with the next big thing. Some have established deeper roots in their field and are built on years of intellectual curiosity and dedicated research.
Solar Pool Technologies, Inc. (SPT) in Tempe, Arizona, is dedicated to bringing solar powered and eco-friendly pool cleaning and maintenance solutions to consumers. Led by Baby Boomers Denis Ruzsa and Paul Sim, this startup’s mission is to introduce technology and products that will make it possible to remove swimming pools from the electrical power grid.
SPT began this quest with the introduction of the Solar Breeze, which is the world’s first solar-powered robotic swimming pool cleaner and chemical dispenser. This revolutionary invention uses sunlight instead of grid electricity to effortlessly remove dirt, debris, pollens and even suntan oils from the pool’s surface. During the day, Solar-Breeze uses the sun’s power to run the motors that drive the cleaner across the water while surplus power is used to charge its battery, enabling it to continue operating almost around the clock. Advanced software controls the unit’s overall functions by directing it to areas with the most sunlight, making Solar-Breeze the only intelligent pool skimmer on the market.
After experiencing ups and downs as many startups do, the company released the next-generation Solar-Breeze NX in a successful 2015 Kickstarter campaign that raised over $400,000 from 758 investors worldwide. “2016 was our best year ever,” Sim shares.
As the company plans for another year of increased revenue and growth, it’s interesting to take a look back at the origin of the company and its innovative product.
Seeds of innovation
Long before SPT was established, VP of Engineering Denis Ruzsa was beginning his long-term relationship with solar energy.
In 1975, Ruzsa was a young engineer embarking on a self-study program in solar energy. He followed his passion to the Arizona State University science library, which at the time housed the largest repository of solar energy research in the world. During one of his research sessions, Ruzsa introduced himself to a quirky young man who was speed reading stacks of books across the table. That chance encounter with fellow inventor Terry Maaske resulted in a partnership that continues over forty years later. The team has developed hundreds of invention ideas and brought several to market throughout their years of working together.
As early as 1986, Ruzsa and Maaske were using their solar know-how to develop groundbreaking inventions. Working with an investor, they built a solar powered air conditioner and heating system for a 3,000 sq. ft. home in Arizona. They hoped furthering this technology would be their big opportunity, but the the federal government of the time had alow regard for solar energy and subsequent funding cuts brought industry growth to a near standstill, so the duo turned to developing smaller projects.
Finding the root cause
Wherever there is a problem, an inventor can look for a solution. In Arizona, residential swimming pools are a part of everyday life. Keeping pools clean and “swim ready” offers a unique set of set of challenges to pool owners. Ruzsa says, “Terry and I always look for the root cause to a problem when inventing. We saw that all pool cleaning technology focused on cleaning the bottom of the pool. Rather than preventing the problem, these cleaners simply react to the symptoms that result from having debris sink and decay in the pool.” This realization pointed the inventors toward developing technology that would clean the surface of the pool using solar energy and to creating a whole new category of pool cleaner.
May 23rd, 2003 – The idea that eventually becomes Solar-Breeze is formed
When they first started working on the solar pool skimmer project, the inventors conducted hundreds of experiments and built several different prototypes over the next three years. They found inspiration in one particular concept, which Ruzsa explains. “The genius for the Solar-Breeze is based on the 100-year-old idea of harbor skimmers, which were developed and are still used to collect floating debris that can become a navigational hazard within harbor waterways.”
In the summer of 2006, Ruzsa made his first trip overseas to meet with suppliers and manufacturers, and the first-generation Solar-Breeze hit the market in the spring of 2007. Sales in 2007 and 2008 added up to about 1,600 units, and Ruzsa continued his efforts to market the innovative new product to an industry with established categories of cleaning devices. “Because the Solar-Breeze represented a whole new category of pool cleaner, industry insiders turned up their noses when we approached,” Ruzsa explains. “They asked if our robot cleaned the bottom of the pool or climbed walls. What they didn’t understand is that because the Solar-Breeze catches the majority of the debris at the surface, cleaning the bottom is not the priority anymore.”
Ruzsa and his wife continued networking through the Scottsdale Chamber of Commerce and made the connection with Paul Sim in 2009. With a background in entrepreneurial ventures and successful business leadership, Sim was using his expertise to advise small businesses in navigating the transition from the start-up phase to successful performance. After meeting with the Ruzsas and Maaske, Sim tested out the Solar-Breeze prototype for himself and was impressed with the results.
By using the Solar-Breeze in his own pool for six weeks, Sim was able to cut his pool pump running time down dramatically and use his pool vacuum just once a week for 45 minutes. Sim recalls, “It was clear that the Solar-Breeze made a huge difference to the time and cost associated with keeping my pool clean. I knew there were a lot of pool owners who had the same problems with the existing methods of pool cleaning as we did. If we could improve the functionality of the product, I believed there would be a very big market opportunity.”
After working as a consultant on the Solar-Breeze, Sim proposed establishing Solar Pool Technologies, Inc. and taking on the role of CEO. Rusza says, “Paul brought valuable management skills to the table, along with a more established business persona. Investors don’t always like to see the ‘crazy inventor’ as the leader of the business.”
Sim also invested in the company to help finance a redesign of the product. With additional early-stage capital from other investors, the improved Solar-Breeze 2.0 was launched in 2010.
“The biggest struggle we faced early on was bringing the functionality and reliability of the product to the point where it was truly marketable, while bringing the product cost to the point where the company could make a profit,” Sim explains. “Once we achieved that, the next big challenge was finding the working capital required to scale the business. This has been on ongoing issue which is amplified by the seasonality of the business.
September 2015 – SPT sees major success on Kickstarter, earning $408,078
The success of the 2015 Kickstarter campaign launched SPT into a new space that is allowing for even more advances in technology and overall growth for the company.
After a Sim is extremely optimistic about the future of the growing venture, saying, “We expect 2017 revenues to double from last year. We are continuing to make changes in product design, supply chain and manufacturing systems, and distribution that will move the company forward in exciting ways in the next few years.”