Proprietary Communities

Spotlight: Island Entrepreneur


Who has not dreamed of owning his own island? A private hideaway in the Caribbean or the South Pacific is the vision of many, but few ever come close to achieving it. One man who has is scientist-author-entrepreneur Neil P. Ruzic.

Unlike most island fantasies, however, Ruzic's island will not be dotted with grass huts, golf courses, or luxury villas. Instead, it will be an "Island for Science," a veritable R&D laboratory featuring a seaweed/shrimp farm, monkey colony, wind and solar power projects, pharmaceutical research labs, and a diagnostic clinic—many of them turning a healthy profit.

That mix of futuristic, interdisciplinary technology reflects Ruzic's extensive involvement in industrial research—as inventor, author, and publisher. He is perhaps best known as the founder of Industrial Research magazine, which he started in 1958. When he sold it to Dun and Bradstreet in 1970, IR had grown to a circulation of 100,000. He remained president of the magazine for two more years, but resigned in 1972 to begin developing his island dream.

Ruzic found what he was looking for in the Berry Islands group in the Bahamas. To be suitable for mariculture (sea farming), the island had to be located on a shelf between shallow and deep water (shallow for farming, deep for shipping access). It also needed a harbor and lakes, and had to be large enough for its own airstrip or be near an island so equipped. Little Stirrup Cay, 125 miles from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, met all these requirements—and it was for sale. For about $600,000, the newly created Neil Ruzic & Co. purchased its island property.

Thereupon Ruzic and his cohorts set about developing their "Blueprint for an Island of Science." An avid outdoorsman and scuba diver, Ruzic spent considerable time on Little Stirrup Cay, gathering detailed data on ocean and air temperatures, wind velocity and direction, flora and fauna, etc. The data thus obtained made it possible to determine which specific activities to pursue in the design studies.

The mariculture plan is a good example. The south shore of the island provides hundreds of acres of very shallow, warm water. Ruzic's interdisciplinary team has designed a "polyculture" system. In "corrals" built in the shallows, seaweed (for agar and carrageenan) will be grown at the surface, conch on the sandy bottom, and shrimp and pinfish in between. The various life forms will live in a symbiotic relationship—the seaweed, for example, increasing the water's oxygen content (benefiting the animals) while the animal wastes help nourish the seaweed. The shrimp will be bred in the island's two lakes, then piped into the offshore corrals.

More than just natural advantages favor the Bahamas location for such a project. "US coastal zone and pollution laws are so unwieldy as to virtually exclude salt water mariculture in the United States today," notes Ruzic. Yet his Bahamas location is only 125 miles from the vast US market.

The other planned research and development projects are equally ambitious. Because of the steady tradewinds in the Bahamas, Ruzic views his island as an ideal site for testing various designs for wind power generators. His initial efforts have focused on designs using a delta-wing-shaped roof as a means of concentrating wind energy into tornado-like vortices. This permits a much smaller wind turbine to be used to capture the energy, thereby cutting costs. A model of the proposed facility, developed by Prof. P.M. Sforza of the Polytechnic Institute of New York, indicates that the full-scale version could produce between 10 and 50 kilowatts of power using two propellors only 16 ft. in diameter; a conventional wind generator would need a 60 ft. propellor for that amount of power.

Another plan is to take advantage of the extensive Bahamian sunshine to desalinate water. Ruzic's group has developed a hybrid design, combining the solar humidification techniques developed at Georgia Tech. and the University of Arizona with the more conventional low-pressure boiling method using waste heat from an engine. They are projecting a cost of between 70¢ and $1.01 per thousand gallons of distilled water (not counting the cost of electricity to run the pumps).

A byproduct of water desalination is, of course, a large amount of sodium. Consequently, another planned R&D project is the development of sodium-conductor electrical cables. For a given conductive capacity, copper is 7.5 times as expensive as sodium, aluminum 2.7 times as costly. Prof. Peter Graneau of MIT expects that sodium cables, insulated with polyethylene, would last as long as conventional cables in underwater applications.

Ruzic sees a unique integrated industry growing up in the Caribbean: augmented wind power generating electricity, used (with sunlight) to produce fresh water and sodium, the sodium manufactured (using low-cost labor) into electrical cables to increase the electrification of the islands.

Yet another plan involves breeding tropical animals. The Indian government recently banned the export of rhesus monkeys, which are used extensively in medical research. Ruzic plans to raise them commercially, along with rare zoo animals such as hyacinth macaws ($3000 each), ruffed lemurs ($6000 each), and golden marmosets ($7000). Research on developing pharmaceuticals from marine organisms and on insect biocontrol is also planned.

This wealth of ideas in a wide range of disciplines comes naturally to Ruzic, who is something of a technological renaissance man. Besides editing Industrial Research for 14 years, he has rubbed shoulders extensively with inventors and entrepreneurs. In 1962 Ruzic founded IR 100—an annual competition for the 100 most significant new technical products. It culminates in an awards banquet held each year at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry. No mere dilettante, Ruzic is an inventor himself, holding a patent on a lunar cryostat—a device for achieving temperatures near absolute zero on the moon.

He is also a prolific author of books and articles on social-technical issues and the future. His Where the Winds Sleep, a 1970 Literary Guild selection, is a future history of the scientific colonization of the moon. Spinoff 1976, produced for NASA, documents the many industrial, medical, and household spinoffs of the space program. He has also written books on creativity and two books on scientific and engineering careers for young people. Besides writing seven books and numerous articles and editing Industrial Research, Ruzic also found time to found Oceanology magazine in 1966 and to publish both Electro-Technology and Control Engineering.

After two decades of writing about research and technology, Ruzic is now spending full time following his own advice. With his Island for Science, he hopes to demonstrate the value of an unconstrained, interdisciplinary approach—and both have fun and make money in the process.