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Entrepreneurs create anti-theft device for catalytic converters


June 12, 2009

It's one of those success stories you look forward to telling your grandchildren, like the time you landed the big one, or how their grandmother was the prettiest girl in the room and fixed the tastiest box lunch.

Except this story is true.

In August 2008, Ian Monat became a statistic in the latest national larceny trend. In a matter of minutes, the catalytic converter beneath Monat's Toyota 4Runner – easily accessible because of the SUV's high ground clearance – was stolen. Police report a national epidemic of such thefts, since the part contains precious metals that can bring as much as $200 apiece from unscrupulous scrap yards.

As Monat and his insurance company prepared to shell out nearly $2,000 for a new catalytic converter, a mandatory part of all vehicles' exhaust systems since 1975, he wondered whether he could invent an anti-theft device that would spare others that financial pain and inconvenience. Monat, who had met professor Eric Menkhus while working in a technology clinic as an MBA student at Arizona State University, made a mental note to give Menkhus a call.

Monat needn't have. When he walked into the Toyota dealership in Mesa to have his catalytic converter replaced, Menkhus was sitting in the lounge, waiting for his Toyota Sequoia to have the same missing part replaced.

"I'm not too religious," Monat said, "but seeing Eric at the dealership that day seemed like a sign."

As director of the Technology Ventures Services Group (TVSG) at ASU, Menkhus had the ideal mechanism for helping Monat bring his idea onto paper and into production. Monat would use the expertise of ASU law, business, engineering and other students enrolled in the TVSG during the 2008-09 school year, as well as local attorneys and a business consultant, to invent an anti-theft device called The Catlock.

The TVSG comprises the Technology Ventures Legal Clinic and Technology Ventures Consulting, for-credit courses at ASU. Students at ASU's Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law who enroll in the legal clinic work on business formation, employment issues, licensing and other agreements, limited patent work, and other intellectual property issues. On the consulting side, ASU graduate students in the W.P. Carey School of Business, the Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering, and in other disciplines perform market research and analysis, technology and supply chain assessments, financial model creation, implementation planning, leadership team analysis and other business-planning services.

Assisted by Hool Law Group of Phoenix and The Idea Gardener, a Valley business consulting firm, students in both groups work together to help Arizona innovators cultivate and grow viable technology businesses.

Without their services, Monat and his business partner, Steve Meislahn, an ASU-educated mechanical engineer whom he met through the ASU Sun Devil Entrepreneurship Network, would never have been able to get their product to market in just 10 months.

"That we were able to get the market research and financial analysis done, as well as a five-year budget in place and initial patent searches performed, was amazing," Monat said. "Steve and I both work full time, and without the TVSG, our business plan could not have been achieved."

Menkhus, a clinical professor at the College of Law, said their idea was a good fit for the TVSG. "The type of help they needed from the students was perfect for the type of experiences I want the students to have," said Menkhus, noting that the timely nature of the theft epidemic meant The Catlock needed quick attention. "And since Ian had been a student in a prior version of the TVSG, I knew he would work well with the students. Also, they couldn't afford a law firm to work on their legal issues and didn't have investors."

Starting in September, Monat and Meislahn devised nearly two dozen iterations of The Catlock before settling on a simpler, more user-friendly design, for which a patent is pending. The pair met over lunch at SkySong, ASU's center for innovation in Scottsdale and home of the TVSG, with the five students assigned to their project.

One of them was Michael Dvoren, a recent graduate of the College of Law who was drawn to the legal clinic because it offered practical experience in transactional law. Dvoren called the lecture portion of the clinic "a refreshing break" from other law-school classes, pointing out Menkhus' approach to melding theory and real-world situations, and his compelling way of teaching trademark, copyright, contract, securities, ethics and other parts of law.

"It's one of the best experiences any law student can ask for, if you want to do any transactional work, tech-related or not," Dvoren said. "There's a lot you cannot know by being a law student. A lot of that knowledge is a by-product of experience."

Dvoren also worked with one of the TVSG's In-Residence professionals, attorney Jonathan Coury of the Hool Law Group. The TVSG is a natural fit for the law firm, which specializes in technology companies and emerging businesses, and a great experience for students, Coury said.

"Just as with doctors who, before they can get out and start practicing medicine, need to do a residency, law students need some hands-on experiences to supplement their classroom time," he said. "This clinic gives law students real-life work experiences, thinking outside the box and working with clients."

Coury, who was struck by the students' dedication to the clients and their projects, said he has a place in his heart for local entrepreneurs. In the early 1930s, his grandfather moved to Arizona and started a car dealership that eventually spread throughout the Valley and became a household name.

Monat and Meislahn also benefited from the business expertise of Tom Fulcher, owner of The Idea Gardener, which specializes in corporate leadership, business coaching, marketing and business development. Fulcher gave feedback to the management team of students on The Catlock business plan, an overview of the market size and dynamics, information on the retail environment and intellectual property, and product design and marketing input.

"These are among the best students at ASU, and working as a mentor to them was a privilege," said Fulcher, who also guided the students on being good consultants, thinking about their career choices and considering their own business goals. "In addition to working with the students, working with the entrepreneurs to help them take their ideas to reality is a truly rewarding part of my business."

The law students met weekly with the other graduate students to hear Fulcher and other guest lecturers discuss topics such as securities law, intellectual property and venture capital. With Coury's supervision, Dvoren wrote an operating agreement for Monat and Meislahn's newly formed LLC, Monat Technologies.

"My aspiration going in was to have one of my client's projects hit the big time," Dvoren said. "If The Catlock takes off, that would make me feel like a million bucks."

The Catlock isn't the first product on the market that deters catalytic converter theft, but it has an adjustable design that allows it to be permanently attached to the catalytic converter of any at-risk vehicle, namely trucks and SUVs. Constructed from carbon steel, the product is less expensive, lighter weight and easier to install than its competitors, Monat said, and it features a steel cable that is virtually saw-proof and impenetrable without a special tool.

"There's nothing else out there that takes this approach to solving this problem, that we know of," Menkhus said.

"We wanted to build a better mousetrap," Monat said. "And if you can put together a piece of IKEA furniture, you can install The Catlock."

The Catlock retails for $99, comes with a full money-back guarantee, and is available at http://www.cat-lock.com/ or by e-mailing ian@cat-lock.com.

Janie Magruder, Jane.Magruder@asu.edu
(480) 727-9052
Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law