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Electric Power on the Water

Caleb Dunn riding in a power boat on the water

UDRI intern wins $20,000 to help commercialize his electric powertrains for boats

At 20 years old, University of Dayton Research Institute intern Caleb Dunn is the inventor of an electric powertrain for sport boats, the founder and CEO of a company on track to produce them, and now the 3rd-place winner of an entrepreneurial competition that will put him closer to his goal—all in pursuit of the ultimate water-skiing experience.

Dunn’s company, WakEDrive, was named a winner in the 17th-annual University of Dayton Flyer Pitch Competition, sponsored by UD’s L. William Crotty Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership and the Greater West Dayton Incubator in partnership with PNC Bank and The Entrepreneurs' Center.

More than 100 competitors entered the competition in the Tech, Main Street and Nonprofit tracks. Winners were announced April 25, and WakEDrive—which stands for Watersport Active Kontrol Electric Drive—was selected by judges from an initial pool of 42 company competitors in the technical track of the contest.

WakEDrive also garnered this year’s Connie Neace Community Choice Award, selected by popular vote in an online poll open to the community. All in all, Dunn and his company were awarded a total of $20,100, comprising $15,000 in cash and $5,100 in in-kind marketing and other services to help Dunn launch his company.

Dunn, who will graduate from UD in 2024 with a degree in electrical engineering and was the youngest finalist in the competition, founded WakEDrive in order to develop an electric power train for boats that would be maintenance-free and environmentally friendly, in addition to providing a smoother and quieter ride. And because the electric drive provides more torque and finer power control than gas engines, it makes for a far better experience for water-skiers, wakeboarders and wakesurfers, he said.

“I’ve been waterskiing at family reunions every summer since I was 4,” Dunn said. “We always used my uncle’s boat, so we never knew how much was involved in prepping the boat for the season, and then winterizing it after, with other maintenance in between. When the pandemic hit, we got our own boat, and that’s when we realized how much work it really was.”

In a classic “there’s-got-to-be-a-better-way” moment, Dunn decided to pursue an engine with all of the performance, but none of the maintenance. That meant going electric.  

He decided to focus first on designing a power train for sport boats that use inboard engines. He purchased a used boat, removed and sold the engine, then proceeded to build a new drive train comprising the engine and gear box—everything from the propeller shaft forward. His design involves a closed-loop cooling system which requires no maintenance. Because no lake water passes through the engine for cooling—the process used by gas motors—there is also very low risk of cross-contamination involving invasive species of algae and aquatic plants if a boat moves from one lake to another.

Dunn, who has interned at UDRI in various capacities since his junior year at Oakwood High School, said his student work and electrical engineering classes at UD gave him an exceptional foundation for developing the drive train. What he didn’t know, he researched.

When he’s not working or preparing for final exams, Caleb Dunn is often found on Eastwood Lake, testing and tweaking his drive train. “Right now I’m working on refining the software,” he said.

Rather than selling his design, Dunn is planning to manufacture the drive trains through WakEDrive. “We’ve already filed a provisional patent, and now we’re working on setting up meetings with boat manufacturers.”

The Flyer Pitch Competition is an annual competition open to all UD faculty, staff, students, alumni, and members of the Greater Dayton region. It awards more than $150,000 in cash prizes and more than $50,000 in in-kind prizes during the competition. Its legacy includes more than 80 new ventures launched as a result of the competition, with more than $24 million in follow-on capital raised by those businesses. Over the course of the competition, participants have the opportunity to strengthen their venture through training, mentorship and feedback from expert judges, which not only helps finalists prepare for their pitch, but ultimately provide entrepreneurs with hands-on support to successfully launch their new venture.

Apr. 26, 2023

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