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May 31, 2021 | Tom Ballard

“WTBI?” winner says his first attempt to automate aquarium was “a tangled mess”

By Kailyn Lamb, Marketing Content Writer and Editor, PYA

Brandon Schreiber’s first attempt at automating his salt-water aquarium was a tangled mess. Adding a single new feature meant individually hand soldering dozens of tiny electronic components and wires. He said it grew into a baseball-sized mess of wires that he couldn’t troubleshoot.

“It was something I solely made for myself,” Schreiber, the Founder of Leviathan Affordable Aquarium Automation, said. “It just became a huge tangled mess and whenever anything went wrong with it, I pretty much just had to throw it in the trash and start from scratch.”

It was a college scuba diving trip that brought about his passion for ocean creatures. After getting his salt-water tank, he quickly realized how much work went into checking the water and ensuring that the salinity, pH, and more were all at the appropriate levels. He estimated he spent about three hours a week working on his tank. “It’s really time consuming, and it was becoming more of a chore than something I enjoyed,” Schreiber said. Missing a single day of maintenance had ill-effects, and more than two or three days could mean a total tank loss.

However, that first mess of wires Schreiber worked with wound up being a new chore. Once he decided it wasn’t a viable option, he began designing an easy-to-use circuit board that would copy everything he built in his original.

With the circuit boards, Schreiber said it was much cheaper to buy them in bulk versus buying one custom board. He decided to put the board on Kickstarter in February 2020 to see if other people were interested. He set his sights low, with a goal of making $1,200 in 30 days. Schreiber joked that even his parents didn’t think it would happen. But by the end of the campaign, Leviathan Affordable Aquarium Automation had raised nearly $13,000.

Since the Kickstarter campaign, Schreiber said Leviathan has continued to gain traction. Most recently, Schreiber entered the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center’s annual “What’s the Big Idea?” pitch competition, winning the $10,000 grand prize in April. He added that he first applied to the program in 2020, but it was before he had traction on the product, and he didn’t make it in. This year’s edition was the first pitch competition Schreiber entered. He said that he hopes to do more as the company grows, but that it is difficult with a two-person team. Learn more about this year’s “What’s the Big Idea?” in this article.

Schreiber said he plans to use the funds from “What’s the Big Idea?” to buy a circuit board machine that will help him build several of the Leviathan boards at once and will scale-up manufacturing. He and his wife Kristine are currently building the boards by hand, he said.

“With the pick and place machine, I’m hoping it will free us both up to have more time to expand Leviathan’s reach,” Schreiber said. “I’ll be able to spend more time on new designs and support, while she can focus on things like advertising, and getting them on retail shelves.”

The Leviathan board is built so that people can adjust the six main features of a basic salt-water aquarium – equipment control, pH, temperature, chemical dosing, light control, and water level sensing.

“Using those six things in combination, you can do just about anything you want with it,” he said. “The main strength of it is being able to set-up custom programs in the software called Reef-Pi that respond to the different inputs it receives and react accordingly.”

People can set-up programs to alert for certain things such as turning on a heater if the temperature falls below a certain level. While the circuit board is a time-saver, Schreiber also said that it offers peace of mind. If you’re on vacation and can’t get to your tank, the automated circuit board can alert you to any issues happening.

The next step for Schreiber is customer research. He said he has been asking people what they would like to see in an updated version of the board. This includes retailers and businesses that maintain aquariums for places like doctor’s or dentist’s offices. For retailers, Schreiber said that companies are interested in boards to maintain tanks in stores, but also boards that will help them maintain the thousands of gallons in tanks they have in warehouses storing fish. Currently, many of those tanks are all being checked manually, Schreiber said.

He also wants to make a board that’s more user-friendly. While a majority of people that have salt-water tanks are technically savvy, it can still be hard to figure out the ports on a circuit board, Schreiber said.

Calling the current board a “mid-way point,” he added, “It’s a little daunting to look at and to work with, but it’s definitely possible.”

He also said that he jumped into being an entrepreneur not knowing what to expect. After finding out there was a need for his board in aquariums, Schreiber has also been finding a use for his board in other water-related industries such as monitoring the water in land-based salmon farms, aquaponics, and brewing. Another use is in the boating industry, where Leviathan boards can be used to accurately dose and monitor the levels of chemicals which would kill off invasive species that live in the ballast.

Although he said he has a lot to learn, it’s been exciting to see the potential his circuit board has.

“The name I picked for the board wound up being kind of accurate for what it grew into,” Schreiber said. “It just sort of grew into this out-of-control leviathan. It’s a lot bigger than I had intended for it to get. It’s definitely exciting.”

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