September 22, 2017

Invention to put aquarists’ minds at ease

South Burlington entrepreneur and engineer James Clark, here with son Nicholas, has created a monitoring system that gives users extensive data on their aquariums. It will be on the market soon. COURTESY PHOTO

BURLINGTON — Wireless products inventor and engineer James Clark was looking to start a new hobby, so he designed and built a Koi pond to beautify his backyard.

Things went wrong almost from the start.

“As soon as I put in the Koi pond I had a lot of my fish die, and a lot of frustration. I couldn’t figure out what was going on,” Clark said.

The problem was in the water chemistry of the pond. What Clark needed was a “turn-key solution” so that he could keep a close tab on the pond’s water quality whenever he was away.

Inspired by frustration, he invented a product called MindStream. The wireless aquarium water monitoring system is designed to eliminate the errors and repetitive testing that goes with manual water testing.

Clark, co-founder of Step Ahead Innovations Inc., in South Burlington, is credited with 50 patents, many in the fields of chemical monitoring systems and photographic cameras and lighting. He said his first task was to make sure there were no related patents in existence or pending for the technology. The next step was to attract investors willing to support product development, he said.

“It was difficult to find investors until our patents started issuing,” he said. “At this point, it’s going pretty well (although) there have been a number of technical challenges.”

The Vermont technology startup company has raised over $7 million to launch the new product — $1.5 million in the most recent capital round.

Clark, a South Burlington resident, said MindStream replaces numerous traditional saltwater test kits with a fully automated solution for aquarists to continuously monitor and balance up to 10 vital water parameters to keep fish and corals healthy.

Such parameters include pH balance and oxygen content, both vital to the survival of saltwater aquarium ecosystems. The system also measures carbonate alkalinity, calcium, salinity, temperature, ammonia, potassium, plus carbon dioxide.

The device magnetically mounts inside the aquarium. Monitor results are transmitted via WiFi and cloud technology in real time to any web-enabled device every 20 minutes.

If water parameters are “out of optimal range,” he said, aquarists are alerted immediately by text message or email so that they can adjust water chemistry accordingly.

“The MindStream Monitor lets aquarium hobbyists relax and enjoy their beautiful fish and coral, instead of worrying about the tedious tasks of maintaining their water,” Clark said. “It can be used in any medium- to large-size tank.”

Clark said the average cost of a large saltwater aquarium setup in the U.S. is around $17,000, so it’s no small investment. Saltwater aquariums are found in restaurants, hotels and other businesses as an aesthetically appealing attraction for clients and customers.

“Our founders and team have invested a tremendous amount of time, energy and care to refine this advanced technology, and bring to market a product that will be reliable, accurate and easy to use,” said Step Ahead Innovations CEO Brian Degen.

“Our customers tell us this is a total game changer for them, and they can’t wait to get their hands on one, and we are confident that this product will exceed expectations,” he said.

The company plans to begin taking pre-orders for the MindStream aquarium monitor in the fall. Shipments are expected to begin in early 2018.

Clark said the MindStream aquarium monitor will be sold online at first and tentatively priced at around $900 or less. The product may later be distributed to retailers if demand for the product is high, he said.

Step Ahead Innovations was founded by Clark and Giuseppe Petrucci, professor of chemistry at the University of Vermont, in 2012. Mindstream Monitor is their first product.


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