New Wave-Making Technology Touches Off San Diego’s Wave War
Bruce McFarland has a long-standing relationship with waves. He learned to surf while he was growing up in Manhattan Beach, CA, a classic Los Angeles-area beach community and home of what is believed to be California’s first surfboard shop. He studied mechanical engineering and fluid mechanics at UC Santa Barbara, and after graduation worked for a while studying waves in space at the former TRW, which was dealing with problems caused by fuel sloshing around inside the fuel tanks of orbiting satellites.
These days, McFarland is making waves in more ways than one. His startup company, AWM, for American Wave Machines, installed its first wave machine at a water park last year, and got its first seed-stage funding from San Diego angel investor Marco Thompson five months ago. The company has contracts to build six other projects, and tomorrow evening McFarland will make a presentation about his startup as a case study at the Salk Institute for San Diego’s MIT Enterprise Forum. If only there wasn’t the threat of a legal “wave war” looming on the horizon.
McFarland told me he started making his own waves nine years ago, inspired by a video of “river surfing” on stationary waves that form under certain conditions at the mouth of Hawaii’s Waimea River. He says he realized it should be possible to create his own standing wave by duplicating the runoff conditions of Hawaii’s rainy season—and he realized such a wave machine would be a great attraction for a water park.
McFarland and his wife, Marie, founded AWM in 2000 to develop the idea. They self-funded the company while Bruce experimented with scale models at their home in Solana Beach, CA. McFarland built his first full-scale prototype of the “SurfStream” standing wave surf machine in 2004. AWM’s first commercial SurfStream installation opened at a water park in Taichung City, Taiwan, last May.
(AWM provided a video of its SurfStream machine in Taiwan here.)
That same month, Wave Loch, another San Diego wave machine maker, filed a patent infringement lawsuit against American Wave Machines in San Diego federal court. The suit alleges that McFarland’s SurfStream design infringes on three patents that Wave Loch founder Thomas J. Lochtefeld holds for technology he began commercializing in 1991 for his “FlowRider” wave machines. The FlowRider, which propels a sheet of water up a contoured, wave-shaped form, has been installed at more than 50 sites throughout the United States, in at least 38 foreign countries, and on five cruise ships. Lochtefeld’s lawsuit seeks monetary damages and a court order that would effectively put the McFarlands out of business.
Lochtefeld told me in an e-mail that he had hired Bruce McFarland in the early 1990s as a contract draftsman and engineer, and that McFarland had access to Wave Loch’s design schematics, proprietary know-how, trade secrets, and intellectual property. “Without getting into technicalities,” Lochtefeld wrote, “I believe that my attorneys have set forth detailed infringement contentions that AWM has not rebutted and that Bruce McFarland developed and began selling his infringing device despite full knowledge of my patents.”
AWM denied Lochtefeld’s allegations in a formal legal response filed last July, and in November AWM requested a legal stay of the infringement suit until the U.S. Patent Office can review all of Wave Loch’s patent claims and reconsider the validity of its patents. In a Feb. 19 order, U.S. District Judge Michael M. Anello granted the stay—which halts the litigation until the patent review has been completed, a process estimated to take two years.
McFarland, on the advice of his attorney, declined to discuss Lochtefeld’s lawsuit. But he says his wave technology is fundamentally different from Wave Loch’s.
McFarland says the FlowRider produces a pressurized sheet of water that’s only several inches deep—too thin to allow surfers to use a conventional surfboard with stabilizing fins. McFarland says his SurfStream uses a greater volume of water (the machine’s pool typically holds 50,000 gallons) that flows deeper and at a lower speed, producing a standing wave that can rise as high as three feet. “It allows you to use a regular board with fins, that’s the main difference,” McFarland told me.
In another advance, McFarland said he’s been able to use software to manipulate the shape of the SurfStream standing wave. By using a computer to control the water pumps and foils in the pool bottom, McFarland said it’s possible to create certain effects, such as creating a pitching wave, the kind of wave that forms a classic tubular curl.
AWM contends that could make its SurfStream design more appealing to the mainstream surfing industry, an enormous market that so far has been lukewarm in terms of embracing wave machines as a venue for surfing contests, for example. The company claims its SurfStream design also is more authentic because it enables surfers to ride at an angle across the wave. “Any kind of oblique wave that you ride at an angle is going to be more challenging and higher difficulty,” McFarland says. “That’s also what the surfing industry is more interested in.”
Winning over the established surfing community could be the key to helping AWM gain inroads among water parks and other venues, such as hotel resorts and action sports events, McFarland said. He told me the main reason he agreed to participate in the MIT Enterprise Forum was to get ideas for other collaborations that could help the company get into established markets, such as amusement parks, and to grow its business.
One idea McFarland is exploring is collaborating with surf camp operators along the coast of Southern California. Perhaps instructors could use a SurfStream machine to provide lessons and pro surfers could provide demonstrations.
McFarland said AWM already has changed its business model with help from San Diego entrepreneur Marco Thompson. who provided AWM an undisclosed first round of “pre-Series A” funding in December. “It’s really under Marco’s mentoring that we’ve changed the business model from just licensing our technology to employing people and going to more of a direct sales, manufacturing, and installation [approach],” McFarland said.
With the angel funding, McFarland said AWM has the capital it needs for now, and the company is busy fulfilling its existing contracts for SurfStream installations in the United States and overseas, with the next one opening at a Sandals Resort in the Turks and Caicos. If they could just catch the right wave, they’d be sitting on top of the world.