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These articles by Melinda Sherwood were published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on September 15, 1999. All rights reserved.

New Spark for Your Car, & Your Love Life

Here is a company that could make NASCAR very happy.

Knite Incorporated, a 10-person start-up founded by engineer and confessed

motorhead Art Suckewer, has developed a spark plug that is more

like a "bolt-of-lightening" plug: it looks and works like

the old standard, but throws out a spark roughly 100 times normal

into the combustion chamber. It could mean better gas mileage, better

engine performance, and less harmful emissions, says Suckewer, a 28-year-old

with a degree in mechanical engineering from Lehigh University, Class

of 1994.

Could it turn your Volkswagen Beetle into a Ferrari? Knite’s CFO,

COO and manager of business development, Matthias Wagner, is

cautious about making grandiose claims, but he does say this about

the "Traveling Spark Ignition," as it is called: "Yes,

it is actually more powerful; for the same amount of energy drawn

from your battery, you get much more spark power." That power,

with the right modifications, could add up to more than just speed.

"A better ignition system allows you to do a number of things

for an engine," says Wagner. "You could increase performance

for racing, you could make a car run smoother, you could also use

the better ignition to reduce the emission of harmful pollutants,"

he says.

The last perk — cleaner exhaust — could propel "Traveling

Spark Ignition" to market within the next year, assuming all goes

well in the company’s lab at 1 Deer Park Drive. "Our initial potential

customers are engine manufacturers that are under pressure from environmental

government regulations on emissions," says Wagner. Then the company

plans to hit the retrofit market, where people are waiting for new

ways to soup-up their cars and enhance engine performance. Knite is

already in discussion with performance auto parts stores and the new

spark plug could be on the market as early as next year.

Both Wagner and Suckewer know that they are dealing with a community

of skeptics. "In this business there have been so many other innovations

that really haven’t made any kind of revolutionary steps ahead in

performance, and to some extent you’re battling against that when

you come out with a new system, even if it does do something truly

revolutionary," says Wagner. But Knite has been able to back up

claims about more power and better efficiency in the facilities of

potential customers. "We put the ignition systems on," says

Suckewer, "and prove the concept and then the customer pays for

development of his potential application." Knite just entered

into its first set of joint development agreements with customers

who were pleased with the engine performance data.

Also working in Knite’s favor is an impressive genealogy,

traceable to Princeton University. The traveling spark ignition started

out as a six-foot-long lab bench instrument called the Marshall Gun,

used at the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab. The same technology that

can now fire-off a car engine systems was originally used to inject

plasma into a chamber for the fusion program, where Szymon Suckewer,

Art’s father, a professor in the university’s department of mechanical

and aerospace engineering, still conducts research. Suckewer worked

side-by-side with Enoch Durbin, whose on-campus and off-campus work

led to numerous inventions and patents (including one for a bigger

and better tennis racket).

Art’s mother, Ada Suckewer, holds a PhD in biochemistry and owns Princeton

X-Ray Laser Inc., a producer of high-end medical technology. The potential

commercial applications of the Marshall Gun were the topic of dinner

table conversation at the Suckewer household while Art was still a

high school student at Hun. "I never saw the original one —

it was in a giant chamber with no windows," he says. "My dad

explained the idea to me, and I thought it had a lot of potential.

I’ve always worked on my own cars. I basically had 10 years of learning

by osmosis."

The Marshall Gun produced an effect well-known in physics, but yet

to be discovered by venture capitalists, involving the application

of an electromagnetic force to a spark. "Basically, it’s clever

physics," says Suckewer. "The initial small spark acts as

a bridge for a large electrical discharge or pulse of power and that

pool of power in itself creates a magnetic force that launches it

into the chamber." On a much smaller scale, the Marshall Gun does

exactly what the old spark-plug does, but with more chutzpah. "It’s

almost like creating ball-lightening and shooting it into the engine,"

says Wagner, who holds a physics and engineering degree from Harvard,

Class of 1992, and received an MBA from MIT’s Sloane School of Business

in 1998. "It is simple, it’s really not that complicated, and

that’s why it doesn’t cost so much otherwise."

"The beautiful thing is that it’s a clever idea with a simple

manufacturing design," says Suckewer. "It replaces any spark

plug anywhere a spark plug exists, from lawnmowers to airplanes."

The lifespan of the plug depends on its application; drag racers can

expect frequent changes, but street drivers can hold the plug to the

current standard. It can be dropped into the engine, theoretically,

but to get the most out of it, says Suckewer, requires tweaking.

"You would put the system on and then tune the car to do it whatever

you want — whether it’s better performance or better mileage —

and adjust the fuel system a certain way to work in conjunction with

a better spark," says Suckewer. "Just putting it on will give

you a couple percent when you’re accelerating, but to really take

advantage of it you have to do some minor modifications." For

that reason, Knite is selling it directly to engine manufacturers

so it can be adjusted in the factory.

Suckewer worked on bringing the Marshall Gun down to scale while on

summer vacations from Lehigh. "I knew I was going to do this,

and I was planning my summers to be involved," he says, "and

I focused my education on automotive and entrepreneurship."

After two and a half years of negotiation with the university,

Knite secured the patent to the technology, and retained both professors

Durbin and Suckewer as consultants. All the parties involved —

the professors, the university, and Knite employees — hold equity

in the company. The company found its first round of investors in

Philadelphia, and when Princeton X-Ray Laser relocated to 10 Maclean

Circle earlier this year, Knite Inc. took its place on Deer Park Drive.

Wagner, a long-time neighbor and friend, joined the team officially

after completing his MBA, and brought with him a team of MBA students

who put together the strategy for the outboard market. Now all Knite

needs is engineers — good ones. "We have the application ready,"

says Suckewer, "but we need the engineers especially to help develop

the products."

Eventually Knite will take the product to Detroit, but for now, says

Wagner, the company is going to focus on the outboard engine manufacturers

and retrofit market first. Primarily, that will enable Knite to get

to market in one year, rather than five. "The engine development

cycles at Ford or GM from the design to roll out of a model is typically

five years," says Wagner. "Boat engines for some reason or

other have a shorter development time."

Where emissions standards and engine efficiency are concerned, there

are also few cost-effective alternatives to the Knite product on the

retrofit market, says Wagner. "There are definitely competitors

that produce add-ons for engines that produce the same final results,"

he says. "For instance, if you want to clean up emission, you

could change ignition system like ours, or add a catalytic converter.

But on a total engine basis, it is much cheaper to replace the ignition

system than to clean up the emissions system. We think that with our

product, we’ll be able to provide a very large jump in performance

for a fraction of the amount that it would cost to get the same performance

or other fuel system or other add-ons."

But before it makes it to either the stores or assembly lines, the

traveling spark ignition will make a debut appearance closer to home,

says Wagner: "We should be seeing it on Art’s car relatively soon."

Keep your eye out for a 1970 Pontiac Tempest that purrs.

— Melinda Sherwood

Knite Inc., 1 Deer Park Drive, Princeton Corporate

Plaza, Monmouth Junction 08852. Art Suckewer, CEO. 732-329-0505; fax,

732-329-8334.


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