Centennial Proximity Spurs Partnerships
By Gene Pinder
Brian Boothe wouldn’t mind if someone called him an opportunist. In fact, he relishes the moniker.
Engineering manager with Pentair Aquatic Eco-Systems, a division of Pentair Aquatic Systems, Booth is based at a research lab on NC State’s Centennial Campus. In the past eight years, the personable NC State alum has tapped into a treasure trove of collaborative research opportunities, venturing into directions he never anticipated.
Take aquaculture, for example.
“Somewhat out of the blue, one of our executives asked me to find out if there was any research being done in aquaculture at NC State,” Boothe recalls. “We came to the Centennial Campus Partnership Office and within three hours found out that there are fish farms nearby. Since that time, we’ve developed a very significant relationship with the aquaculture researchers — and have even hired a couple of folks from the university to be part of our executive team.”
That expansion is part of Pentair Aquatic Eco-Systems’ recent growth in commercial aquaculture and aquaponics, aquatic life support systems, laboratory animal housing, and lake and pond management. Revenues are moving to approximately $60 million in 2013. “The target is publicly stated at $100 million by 2015,” Boothe adds.
The larger Pentair global operations include products and services focusing on water and fluid filtration, thermal management, and equipment protection.
In Boothe’s partnerships with NC State, proximity is key. State-of-the-art laboratories and equipment are within a short walk. Equally close contact with researchers and students has proven to be enormously beneficial. In fact, Pentair first developed a relationship with NC State through a single student project and now takes advantage of varied opportunities.
Boothe had a question, so he asked a neighbor. “Brian came to us initially with an idea for mapping out pools, with the idea that we could use the mapping to run an autonomous robot to clean pools automatically versus a lot of the manual systems they have today,” says Bart Green, retired director of the Troxler Design Center in the electrical and computer engineering department.
“From there, we started getting into power efficiencies. How can we make the pumps run at the right speeds, at the right times of day that are the most cost-efficient for the pool owner as well as less impact on the power grid?”
Pentair now has a wide network of university expertise, such as with Poole College of Management’s Center for Innovative Management Studies, known as CIMS. “We wanted to make sure the relationship we had with the university went beyond just the technical,” Boothe explains.
“As a result, we reached out to CIMS to expose our product management staff to the research and best practices behind innovation management. We wanted them to basically look at their product lines as their own entrepreneur endeavor. And by having the relationship with the College of Management, they have the tools that can help them expand on that.”
The company also enjoys a strong a relationship with the College of Textiles and, in particular, the Nonwovens Cooperative Research Center, where it is a research partner. From using equipment to help with product validation in water filtration to attending conferences showcasing the latest advances in applied research, Pentair seeks a competitive advantage in the marketplace by being on the cutting edge of research.
“The benefit to us is that we don’t have to have the validation equipment in-house,” Boothe notes. “We don’t have to have the expertise in-house that might run that type of equipment. We can just use the relationships we have and the equipment the university has on Centennial to help us further our efforts in product validation. It’s really a win-win for us and the university.”
DIVING INTO INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY
Boothe easily taps into other resources located on Centennial, including a “hidden treasure” just across the street from the Pentair lab. Located on the first floor of the Venture III building, the Institute for Next Generation IT, known as ITng, provides cutting-edge research in information technology and consulting services to Centennial partners and other companies.
By working with ITng, Pentair realized it could explore new computer-assisted ways to monitor electricity use and optimize power consumption.
“Swimming pool pumps consume a lot of electricity,” says John Bass, ITng director. “Brian came out with some hardware to monitor temperature, amount of chlorine and other factors. Then, the company came out with a unit that collects this data and then sends it back to the Internet.” Thus, a swimming pool operator can tell exactly how much electricity is consumed.
“The problem was — how do you scale that effort to tens of thousands of customers? Working with Brian, we came out with a way to collect all that data, pull it periodically and then create time-series data sets for each measure,” Bass adds.
The partnership that Pentair developed with the ITng researchers not only gave the company tangible results that can benefit its operations, but it also provided ITng students with real-world experience. Undergraduate and graduate students spend a semester at the institute.
“The students get a lot out of our relationships with our corporate and institutional partners,” Bass notes. “They, of course, get paid for their work and get some great experience, but they can also put their work on their resume and they make contact with people that hire.”
Many echo those sentiments. Green’s students enjoy working with mentors on challenging projects. “The whole process of dealing with things outside their discipline is often very motivating to them and gives them a fresh perspective,” he says.
Boothe estimates that Pentair has interacted with about 50 electrical and computer engineering students since the company started collaborating with the College of Engineering in 2008. Some of the relationships continue beyond the senior year design projects.
Scott Hilbert, an electrical and computer engineering major who graduated in 2009, began working with Pentair when his senior project team was asked to help design a wireless water-flow regulator for pool cleaning systems.
“The work gave us a lot of experience building an actual device, as opposed to developing components in the lab,” Hilbert explains. “I also got experience collaborating with others on a project, which was really helpful. I was very lucky.”
He has continued working with Pentair on projects as founder of Scott Hilbert Software.
“We look at the relationship we have with the students, and with these projects, as an opportunity to essentially give them professional exposure that will allow them to have a more comprehensive resume when they leave the university,” Boothe says. “We benefit by having the opportunity to identify talent for the future by being exposed to very bright students.”
Companies also benefit from building and maintaining a relationship with the university. Green notes that when working with the College of Engineering, corporate partners start to understand younger engineers better, where their mindsets are, and what they can bring to the table when hired.
In this period of tight competition for engineering talent, those insights can often give a company an edge. Whether it’s tapping into smart fiber research in the College of Textiles or finding new ways to manage and control the explosion of data residing in cloud computing, Pentair, through Brian Boothe’s efforts, maximized its presence on Centennial Campus in ways neither he nor the company originally imagined.
Not a bad track record for an opportunist.