Senior ready to launch his career and a company

Steven Schultz

Princeton NJ -- Like most seniors, Erik Limpaecher is hoping to end the year with several good job offers.

Unlike most, he isn't looking for a job. With any luck, he will be making offers to fellow students to work for a company he is founding.

Erik Limpaecher's dorm room serves as the proverbial entrepreneur's garage and boardroom for Power Silence, a company he is founding to market a device that improves the quality of electricity.


Limpaecher, an electrical engineering major, is developing a device that improves the quality of electricity for businesses and industries that increasingly require clean, reliable power to run sensitive equipment. As other students focus on finishing senior theses, Limpaecher, who already is collaborating with four other seniors, will be seeking his first round of venture financing and hiring a management team.

"It's been a total roller coaster ride," said Limpaecher. "It's so much fun. Every day we learn something new."

His company, Power Silence, is based on technology for which he and his father obtained a patent in September, and which he further developed in an engineering class last semester. The real impetus, however, came when Limpaecher took the course "High Tech Entrepreneurship" taught by longtime entrepreneur Ed Zschau. The course is offered jointly by the departments of electrical engineering and of operations research and financial engineering.

Limpaecher originally had intended to go to work for another fledgling company founded by his father, Rudy Limpaecher, a physicist. That company is marketing a different application of the same power regulation technology. In the entrepreneurship class, Limpaecher was required to write a business plan, so he put together ideas for his own startup.

"Erik did an excellent job in the course and particularly on that project," said Zschau, a 1961 graduate of Princeton who taught at Harvard and Stanford business schools before returning to Princeton as a visiting lecturer with the rank of professor. "I encouraged him to continue to pursue it, and he has. I think he's got something.

"It's a unique and patented technology," Zschau continued. "The regulation of power is important not only in creating less waste, but there's also a lot of very sensitive equipment that needs to be protected from voltage fluctuations."

For Limpaecher, a little encouragement was all he needed. "I thought I was just going to be an engineer," he said. "Now it's totally different. Now I really want to be an entrepreneur."

The proof is in Limpaecher's dorm room, a stand-in for the proverbial entrepreneur's garage. Circuit boards, wiring diagrams and testing equipment cover his desk. His bed in the opposite corner seems like an afterthought.

His room is also the Power Silence boardroom where Limpaecher and his one-time lab partner, John Lerch, meet frequently to discuss tactics. Three other seniors, Darren Hammell, Mark Holveck and Tom Vessella, pitched in to conduct market research and fine tune the business plan. They have interviewed utility company executives across the country and investigated competing products.

"Instead of just saying it seems good to us, we set out to find proof and numbers and experienced people who say 'Yeah, that is a good idea," said Holveck.

"Having good advisers is key," agreed Lerch. "And lots of people have been really willing to help us."

Lerch has given up an offer to work for McKinsey & Co., a consulting firm, in favor of helping to start Power Silence. The business has not progressed far enough for Hammell, Holveck and Vessella to make that commitment, but the idea is tantalizing. "How perfect is a job where you get to work with your friends all the time?" said Holveck.

The five students have submitted the plan to the Princeton Entrepreneurship Club annual business plan contest (see accompanying story).

Making a difference

Limpaecher speaks passionately about the potential benefits of his technology, which, in addition to compensating for droops and spikes in the power supply, can improve the efficiency of the overall power grid.

"Not only is this an incredible cost savings, it can make a real difference in the world," said Limpaecher. "It has tremendous savings potential, especially for developing countries." The recent power problems in California have underlined the need for such systems, he said, noting that a future, as-yet undeveloped application of the technology is to store power at night for use during peak usage times in the day.

The core invention that allows all this is a complex set of switches that manipulate the voltage, phase and frequency of AC power. Limpaecher and his father conceived of a technique for operating the switches with millisecond timing, so that they are activated only at moments when the fluctuating current happens to be zero. This allows for a smaller, less expensive, more efficient switch than those used by conventional power regulators.

Limpaecher said the idea seemed fairly simple, but implementing it was more difficult than he thought. He and Lerch did much of that work in a course called "Embedded Computing," which focuses on designing microprocessors that fit into other devices.

Limpaecher recently has spent much of his time seeking advice from people in fields from electrical utilities to venture capital. After floating the idea on the Alumni Council's Tigernet "Venture-Net" e-mail list, he was flooded with responses. Now his goal is to raise private investments to fund the first couple years. Within three years, he hopes to have revenues in the millions.

Will it happen? "I am absolutely convinced," he said. "I am positive about it. I know it will work. We just need the funding and we need the right people."


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