IC inventor takes chance on water-borne drone

Michael Simon, founder of Clean River Solutions, poses with the RC Beaver, a device intended to clear debris that clog waterways and collect around bridges. CREDIT UNIVERSITY OF IOWA, OFFICE OF STRATEGIC COMMUNICATION, PHOTOGRAPHER TIM SCHOON

By Katharine Carlon

If, as Thomas Edison said, genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration, inventor Michael Simon is in the sweaty throes of bringing his idea for clearing debris from the nation’s waterways to fruition.

Mr. Simon, founder of Iowa City-based Clean River Solutions, is developing the RC Beaver, a drone device designed to cut through the tangle of timber, trash and other material that collects around bridge pilings and other inconvenient places. His prototype moves about the water with ease, turning, making side-to-side strafing motions, and moving up and down in the water to attack submerged menaces.

But finding just the right type of cutting blade to chew through dense thickets of debris has so far proven elusive.

“That’s the part I’m really working on right now,” said Mr. Simon, who has tested various combinations of cutting, grinding and sawing implements in his quest to bring his idea to market. “The cutting mechanism is really not up to scratch right now, and whether it works or not will determine whether my business is successful.”

A lifelong seeker of “a better way to do things,” Mr. Simon is now working with a welder on a large-scale version of a combination rotating disc-chainsaw, similar to the tool used to grind tree stumps. If it proves successful, he will next experiment with industrial-grade chainsaws that won’t be easily dulled by the sand and silt found in water-logged debris piles.

“I think once I have this thing, and I have a video that shows it in action, I think it’s going to kind of sell itself,” he said of his early-stage invention, the product of a later-in-life return to college that saw him graduate from the University of Iowa in May with both a geology degree and an entrepreneurship certificate. “I just have to get there.”

Mr. Simon, 44, had a vision for what would become the RC (remote control) Beaver during a field trip with his fluvial geomorphology class to the Iowa River near the Iowa Memorial Union. As his professor pointed out various real-life examples of concepts discussed in class – watersheds, the shapes of rivers, and their rise and fall – Mr. Simon noticed a large pile of logs and other matter stuck to a railroad bridge south of the union building.

“I asked him about it, and he said, ‘Well, it can be a big problem. If it gets big enough, it is a small dam, it causes localized flooding and it also changes the way the water flows, the currents in the river,’” he recalled, adding that over time, debris can scour out the bridge piers and pylons, compromising their integrity. “And right about that time, I had to pitch an idea to my Entrepreneurship and Innovation class.”

Though he originally figured he would join another group working on a restaurant project, “I had just seen that river thing and thought, ‘What if I came up with something called the Sawfish or the Beaver Drone or something like that?’”

He pitched it to his class of about 50 people, and to his surprise, four students beelined to work on his project. As they started delving into specifics – potential customers, market size and basic financial projections – he realized he might be onto something.

“We had to put it together and answer, is this worth doing or not?” he said. “And through the course of investigating it, we discovered it was a problem … that there is a need.”

Although bridge owners like the state of Iowa often ignore smaller debris piles in hopes that river currents and natural flood will eventually move them along, he said, it can be a persistent problem depending on the shape of a bridge, the way current flows and how much more debris is upstream, waiting to be ensnared.

According to Mr. Simon, the Iowa Department of Transportation hired contractors to remove large debris piles to the tune of around $1 million between 2013-2016. The current process is both costly and lengthy, because it involves using heavy equipment for removal, disposal of the collected wood at designated sites and employing special equipment to minimize erosion due to the treads on the cranes and excavators needed to do the job.

In a press release earlier this year, Mr. Simon’s professor in his entrepreneurship class, Joseph Sulentic, called his proposal “mature,” because it was aimed at designing and manufacturing a product to solve an existing problem.

“There’s no doubt it can save the state money,” Mr. Sulentic said. “And that’s the opportunity. If there’s a way to make money for someone or save someone money, then there’s a clear interest.”

Mr. Sulentic is not the only one impressed with Mr. Simon’s idea. He won $500 last fall in the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center’s Rose Francis Elevator Pitch competition, $2,500 for a second-place finish in JPEC’s business model competition, $1,000 in a sustainability business model competition, and just this past summer earned $800 working with the university’s student accelerator for hitting certain business milestones in addition to a $3,500 stipend.

He has also joined JPEC’s Founders’ Club to continue perfecting his product in hopes of launching it, along with a full suite of products and services for cleaner, healthier rivers.

Still, in order to make a real go of it, Mr. Simon said he needs investors. He has al- ready spent more than $2,500 in building his prototype with help from some outside experts, including a trio of engineering students, who helped program the device’s unique strafing motion. Securing outside money will undoubtedly mean dealing with the persistent cutting mechanism issue.

“I need to have a successful machine as a whole,” he said. “I need to see it and my investors, whoever they might be, need to see that this will really work … that this will be a better option than waiting for the river to go down and then bringing in heavy equipment to take care of it.”

Mr. Simon, a father of three who drives a Cambus and recently began a job with Iowa City Transit to pay the bills, said he did not set out to be an entrepreneur.

“I always had a lot of a lot of different ideas,” he said. “Like when I worked at a plastics factory, I would be trying to fill these hoppers full of plastic resin, and while I was doing that, I would think of an idea like a miniature golf course. … All of them stem from something related to a job I already had – something that could be done a little bit better or a little differently.”

One of the most important lessons he’s learned so far is the need to build a team around him to turn vision into reality.

“It’s challenging,” he said, “because I’ve learned that nobody has a passion for your idea like you do.”