Frederick company creates heat of the future'
Tom Fedor/The Gazette
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A clear glass toaster; a plane of glass that can heat a living room; a device that helps relieve arthritis and carpal tunnel syndrome pain; a less-damaging, more energy-efficient hairdryer — these have all been created by Impression Technology, a nanotechnology start-up headquartered in Frederick and run in large part by three city residents.
The young company has perfected a new, "green" technology it calls Pure Heat, which offers, among other benefits, a way to generate evenly distributed heat at a 70 percent electricity savings over conventional heating methods. The kicker is the technology can be applied to essentially any non-flexible surface, and it is entirely transparent.
"All the stuff you see on Star Trek you can now do," said August A. Wright, Impression's managing director. "It's like the next Microsoft … We feel that this technology is as exciting as the next light bulb in its impact on energy and heating solutions, and on our environmental problems."
Pure Heat technology came to life during a demonstration at Wright's downtown apartment last week, when he, Impression president Trevor L. Combs, and special projects coordinator Dara Rodola demonstrated the company's transparent toaster.
Though the appliance is just a rough prototype of the final design, the technology's potential revealed itself through its sheer simplicity. The toaster is essentially just four panes of glass — the inner two have been sprayed with the clear Pure Heat coating — sticking straight up out of a piece of metal which plugs into a wall socket. It looks more like an electric picture frame than an average toaster.
But sure enough, a minute or two after placing a slice of wheat bread between the two inner panes, the bread was crisp and ready to eat, using much less energy than a standard opaque toaster, according to Combs.
"If you think about a standard toaster, and its wire coil, it's easy to see how it draws 70 percent less electricity," Combs said after the demonstration, explaining that coil heat is uneven and primitive compared to Pure Heat, and therefore drains much more energy. "There are so many things we can do. We can use windowpanes as heating elements, we could integrate tube heaters into staircases, walkways, handrails, we could heat roads. There are not many limits to the possibilities."
Impression Technology has slowly come about as an international company – it has offices or leased factory space in Japan, China and Hong Kong, in addition to its main headquarters here in Frederick. Wright said he located the company in Frederick because of it is between business centers such as Philadelphia, Baltimore and New York, and also because of its close proximity to Washington, D.C. The choice to move to Frederick puts Impression in the company of many other technology firms such as BP Solar and Integrated Communication Solutions. According to the Department of Labor, Licensing and Registration, Frederick County ranked second in Maryland for the number of new information technology jobs created per capita from 2002 to 2005.
"Because we do have a business incubator and also because of our geographical location on the northern end of the I-270 tech corridor we do see more technology-related businesses than other areas," said Jessica Hibbard, communications director at the Frederick County Chamber of Commerce.
Wright met Pure Heat's inventor, David Wu, while working in manufacturing in Asia and formed a close professional relationship. Wu had started Impression in 1997 and by 2006 had invested close to $2 million in the company. But he was "at a lock," according to Wright, about how to get the product into mass production.
So Wright, Combs and Rodola, with their manufacturing, industrial design and logistics expertise, respectively, partnered with Wu in a push to get the product into production in North America and Europe. The team returned to the United States in January and started Impression Technology America, headquartered in Frederick.
All was moving along smoothly and investment was lined up for one of the final steps of getting to mass production — outfitting the Impression Technology factory in Asia — when the economy tanked this fall. Despite having secured multi-million-dollar work orders for Pure Heat products from a few companies interested in the technology, the money dried up, and now Impression is stuck, like many other companies, trying to recover from the impacts of a reeling economy.
"We had almost-guaranteed investment, and then the economic markets crashed and everyone changed their minds and was too scared to invest in anything."Rodola said. "We're looking for private or institutional investors who are interested in an innovative and revolutionary, green' technology that can be almost immediately deployed."
Renee Winsky, president and executive director of Maryland Technology Development Corporation, agreed with the notion that it has become increasingly difficult since the economic crisis for technology firms to secure private investment.
"Private investors are not readily opening up their checkbooks like they might have a year or so ago. So, yes, there is some extra scrutiny on behalf of angel' investors and the venture investor community," she said. "I think everyone's being cautious and approaching things with a little bit of skepticism because of the marketplace."
Wright and Rodola, who said last week that they were working on some new developments to get their products on the shelves, are cautiously optimistic.
"We're a total turnkey solution," Wright said. "If we had the cash injection, we're ready to run. We just need gas in the gas tank."