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Aircraft engine invention prepares to take flight

Funds invested by two area angel groups were presented to officials with Engineered Propulsion Systems Inc. on Monday at the New Richmond Regional Airport. Pictured (left to right) are John Soderberg, First National Community Bank; Paul Mayer, president of the New Richmond Area Economic Development Corp., representing the New Richmond Angel Investment Network; Steven Weinzierl, vice president of EPS; Dick Rutan, technical advisor for EPS; Michael Fuchs, president of EPS; Peter Marsnik, manager of the Chi...

Engineered Propulsion Systems Inc. of New Richmond is on the verge of something big.

For more than six years, engineers Steven Weinzierl and Michael Fuchs have been convinced that they'd come up with the perfect idea for an innovative, low-cost diesel engine for general aviation aircraft.

Their challenge, however, has been to convince others that their idea was worthy of financing.

This week, the two inventors celebrated achieving that major goal.

On Monday, the New Richmond Angel Investment Network and the Chippewa Valley Angel Investors Network helped to kick off the first stage of the development of the new engine.

NRAIN investors have pledged $225,000 toward the development of the first engine prototype. CVAIN has invested $125,000 in the project. A host of additional individual investors have resulted in an initial $612,000 in capital for the EPS start-up.

That local investment figure is important, because the local company can now access $600,000 in state Department of Commerce matching funds. The state grant was set to be awarded to Weinzierl and Fuchs Tuesday night at R&D Conference Center in New Richmond.

On Monday afternoon, Fuchs waited for a check-passing photo to be taken at the New Richmond Regional Airport. He looked slightly dazed.

"It's exciting," he admitted. "But now it's really time to get going."

The wait for financing took so long, he explained, that it's hard to believe that the development stage had been accomplished.

EPS officials now plan to develop a working engine by the spring of 2011.

Once the first prototype is finished, EPS will seek additional investors to provide capital for a New Richmond manufacturing plant and for a complete ramp up of the company. The inventors remain convinced that there will be so much demand for their new aircraft engine that the company will grow into a multi-million-dollar manufacturer in no time.

They have at least one high-powered aviation expert supporting them.

Dick Rutan, who piloted Voyager on the first-ever, non-stop, unrefueled flight around the world in 1986, has been an EPS backer since first hearing about the idea in 2004. He has been a technical advisor for EPS since then, and he was in New Richmond earlier this week to help celebrate the finalization of the financing package.

Interestingly, when Rutan invited Weinzierl and Fuchs to present their idea to him in 2004, he gave them just 30 minutes to state their case.

"I just thought it was another hokey idea," he admitted. But as he listened, he realized the pair was on to something. "I think these guys have figured it out."

Rutan said the general aviation industry has lagged behind the automobile industry in the development of high tech and environmentally-friendly engines.

Most of today's small airplane engines still burn leaded fuel, even though the federal government gave the industry more than 15 years to develop an alternative, Rutan said.

With EPS's planned engine, Rutan said a solution is just around the corner.

"This will be the salvation of our industry," he said. "I'm glad to see this getting off the ground. It provides a glimmer of hope for our industry."

If all goes according to plan, the new engine will run on diesel or jet fuel. It will run smoothly, with little vibration, and will start simply with the turn of a key.

"If our automobiles can do that, why not our airplanes?" Rutan said.

The engine will be liquid cooled and light weight. The engine's life will also be two or three times longer than present engines.

But the key now is to manufacture the first engine, Rutan said.

"You have to get it off the paper," he said. "Then the rest of the financing will come."

Paul Mayer, president of the New Richmond Area Economic Development Corp., who has been working with EPS on financing and investors, agreed. There are a number of potential investors waiting in the wings until the first engine is finished.

"Come spring, we'll be calling those people who laughed at us a year ago," he said.

Once a prototype is finished, EPS can begin the engine certification process with the Federal Aviation Administration.

"Once you get it certified, then the world is your oyster," Rutan said.

Weinzierl and Fuchs said they will be working long hours over the next few months to manufacture their first engine.

If things progress well, EPS hopes to construct an industrial plant near the New Richmond Regional Airport within the next year or two. They also hope to hire upwards of 127 people in their engine manufacturing company.

The goal is to manufacture 1,500 to 2,000 engines a year when EPS is up to full speed.