Archive for the ‘Energy and Environment’ Category

Ahead of our time

Tuesday, April 4th, 2023

We founded Polar Spring Corporation in 1987 to develop and market a novel drinking water appliance based on freeze crystallization. The original founders were Judith Schwartz (President), C.N. Chang (CTO), Bill Conlon (VP Engineering) and Don Hendricks (Senior Engineer). Judith had a great network and expanded the team in sales and marketing, notably Ellen Lapham, John Wiest, Germaine Cummings, and Tracy Corral. We also had great support from consultants, especially Bruce Jenett (Fenwick & West), Peter Mueller (Interform), Basilio Chen (Evotech), Sandy Frank (photography) and Paul Casias (accounting). And we had very loyal advisors, including David Gold, Ike Hermann, and Jim Stocker. And let’s not forget our secondary office — Gambardella’s Restaurant in Menlo Park.

The photo album below highlights our first three years attempting to build a company and commercialize the IceHaus® countertop drinking water appliance. The inspiration for the company came from a photo by Bryan and Cherry Alexander in the 1987 National Geographic article showing Kigutikak Duneq, a Greenland Inuit. Illustrating the technical principle of water purification by freeze crystallization, he was atop an ice floe in the middle of the ocean, drinking seawater that had been freshened by freezing.

The rest of the album shows our team including parties and team building, investor meetings, sales efforts, and some shots of our lab. Though the company failed and wound itself up in 1997, our difficult journey was filled with laughter, good food and drink, and companionship.

At the time, venture capital preferred B-to-B sales to “rational” customers and felt that consumer facing products were too risky. We were definitely too early to the water market, as it was rare to find a VC who thought anyone would pay for water (only those with international experience got it). And finally, we were an inexperienced team without a track record of reaching IPO — unlike today when naive entrepreneurs are often favored for their ignorance of what hasn’t worked in the past.

Nevertheless, we had some wonderful investors, many of them friends and family, who supported our efforts and covered costs, although there was never enough capital to cover salaries for the founders.

We developed a patent portfolio that covered directional freezing systems, including

  • Control of Crystal Growth in Water Purification by Directional Freeze Crystallization; 5,555,747, September 17, 1996.
  • Method and Means for Liquid Purification by Batch Crystallization; 5,438,843, August 8, 1995
  • Melt System for Liquid Purification by Batch Crystallization; 5,231,852; August 3, 1993.
  • Melt System for Liquid Purification by Batch Crystallization; 5,113,664, May 19, 1992.
  • Method and Means for Optimizing Batch Crystallization for Purifying Water;  4,954,151; September 4, 1990.
  • Dual freezing chamber system and method for water purification; 4,799,945; January 24, 1989.

We developed working prototypes of the IceHaus® that were delivered to Williams-Sonoma and KitchenAid. The unit as Williams-Sonoma was placed in their executive office, ran well, and was well-received.  However, the KitchenAid system didn’t deliver the purification we claimed.  We had believed that freeze crystallization would remove virtually any contaminant, but found that the crystallization process was sensitive to the quantity of dissolved solids — which were much higher in Michigan than in San Francisco.

Ultimately, we pivoted to a commercial product, the CrystalCooler™ that aimed to replace bottled water coolers, and turned to government contracts to advance the technology and overcome the challenges identified with the KitchenAid prototype.  But by the time we had figured out the technology, we had lost our momentum.

Here are some papers that we presented at the International Appliance Technical Conference in 1992 and 1993, which received best presentation and best paper awards, respectively.