Corrections or additions?
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
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,"
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
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
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
Plaza, Monmouth Junction 08852. Art Suckewer, CEO. 732-329-0505; fax,
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.