Erudite’s ready and waiting

EVERETT – From his office window, Paul Willms can see Port Gardner Bay and the working waterfront at its edge.

He hopes one day that most, if not all, of the shipping containers moving through the port there will use his company’s inventions.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, ports have been identified as easy targets for a terrorist attack. Sen. Patty Murray has been a national leader in legislation pushing for careful tracking of incoming shipping containers.

“We’ve held that ground that we have to track these things all the time. You can’t let them out of your sight,” said Willms, founder and chief executive officer of Erudite Inc.

Only a fraction of the 7 million or more shipping containers entering the U.S. annually are scanned for security risks.

Based in downtown Everett, Erudite is refining a combination of acoustic, satellite tracking and other technologies to create a system that keeps an electronic eye and ear on cargo as it moves around the globe.

Les Atlas, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Washington, said “off-the-shelf” solutions for securing shipping containers have been proposed, but a host of companies are trying to develop new, better ways to do it.

Until recently, however, the problem hasn’t attracted much in the way of research or sizable grants.

In mid-2005, Atlas and Erudite received a Washington Technology Center grant to further develop container locks and tracking devices. After more than three years of work, the firm has developed prototypes with the help of about $2 million from investors.

Erudite’s prototypes include the XCoupler, which is designed to mount on the inside of a shipping container and transmit a picture made with sound waves, an acoustic profile, of what’s inside. It also can listen for any unusual noises inside the container during shipping.

The company also has developed a Global Positioning System-enabled lock, which won’t allow anyone to open the container until it reaches the coordinates of its destination. It also tracks the container’s journey and sends out an alert if someone tries to tamper with it.

The key is that components of Erudite’s system travel with the container and relay information constantly, Willms said. That’s in contrast to most of the port security systems in place now, which peek at containers only at either ends of their trip.

“A full, comprehensive solution needs to be on all the time,” Willms said.

To try out its products, Erudite now owns two containers. Willms and Atlas said their next goal is to incorporate technology that can detect lead and similar materials that might be used to shield a bomb from scanners.

With a tiny staff right now, Erudite is competing with the likes of IBM, GE and Lockheed-Martin in developing better tracking equipment for containers. But there’s no one inexpensive, reliable standard technology that’s emerged as a clear leader.

Willms said he’s moving toward raising more financing, with the goal of being ready to demonstrate Erudite’s system on a large scale next year. He’s planning a high-profile product launch, which he’s calling the China 8 Project that will tie in with the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

In the meantime, Willms has met with legislators in Olympia and Washington, D.C., to pitch his company’s solution for port security. Murray’s success last week in getting $400 million included for a port security grant program in the proposed 2008 federal budget gives Willms hope that more resources and attention will come to port security solutions.

“This is not just about a safe America, but about safe trade around the world,” he said.

Reporter Eric Fetters: 425-339-3453 or

Talk to us

More in Herald Business Journal

Members of Gravitics' team and U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen stand in front of a mockup of a space module interior on Thursday, August 17, 2023 at Gravitics' Marysville facility. Left to right: Mark Tiner, government affairs representative; Jiral Shah, business development; U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen; Mike DeRosa, marketing; Scott Macklin, lead engineer. (Gravitics.)
Marysville startup prepares for space — the financial frontier

Gravitics is building space station module prototypes to one day house space travelers and researchers.

Orca Mobility designer Mike Lowell, left, and CEO Bill Messing at their office on Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2023 in Granite Falls, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Could a Granite Falls startup’s three-wheeler revolutionize delivery?

Orca Mobility’s battery-powered, three-wheel truck is built on a motorcycle frame. Now, they aim to make it self-driving.

Catherine Robinweiler leads the class during a lab session at Edmonds College on April 29, 2021. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Grant aids apprenticeship program in Mukilteo and elsewhere

A $5.6 million U.S. Department of Labor grant will boost apprenticeships for special education teachers and nurses.

Peoples Bank is placing piggy banks with $30 around Washington starting Aug. 1.
(Peoples Bank)
Peoples Bank grant program seeks proposals from nonprofits

Peoples Bank offers up to $35,000 in Impact Grants aimed at helping communities. Applications due Sept. 15.

Workers build the first all-electric commuter plane, the Eviation Alice, at Eviation's plant on Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021 in Arlington, Washington.  (Andy Bronson / The Herald)
Arlington’s Eviation selects Seattle firm to configure production plane

TLG Aerospace chosen to configure Eviation Aircraft’s all-electric commuter plane for mass production.

Jim Simpson leans on Blue Ray III, one of his designs, in his shop on Friday, August 25, 2023, in Clinton, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Whidbey Island master mechanic building dream car from “Speed Racer”

Jim Simpson, 68, of Clinton, is using his knowledge of sports cars to assemble his own Mach Five.

An Amazon worker transfers and organizes items at the new PAE2 Amazon Fulfillment Center on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2023, in Arlington, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Amazon cuts ribbon on colossal $355M fulfillment center in Arlington

At 2.8 million square feet, the facility is the largest of its kind in Washington. It can hold 40 million “units” of inventory.

A computer rendering of the North Creek Commerce Center industrial park in development at 18712 Bothell-Everett Highway. (Kidder Mathews)
Developer breaks ground on new Bothell industrial park

The North Creek Commerce Center on Bothell Everett Highway will provide warehouse and office space in three buildings.

Dan Bates / The Herald
Funko president, Brian Mariotti is excited about the growth that has led his company to need a 62,000 square foot facility in Lynnwood.
Photo Taken: 102312
Former Funko CEO resigns from the Everett company

Brian Mariotti resigned Sept. 1, six weeks after announcing he was taking a six-month sabbatical from the company.

Cash is used for a purchase at Molly Moon's Ice Cream in Edmonds, Washington on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
Paper or plastic? Snohomish County may require businesses to take cash

County Council member Nate Nehring proposed an ordinance to ban cashless sales under $200. He hopes cities will follow suit.

A crowd begins to form before a large reception for the opening of Fisherman Jack’s at the Port of Everett on Wednesday, August 30, 2023, in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Seafood with a view: Fisherman Jack’s opens at Port of Everett

“The port is booming!” The new restaurant is the first to open on “restaurant row” at the port’s Waterfront Place.

Tanner Mock begins unwrapping new furniture that has been delivered on Thursday, Aug. 24, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
In Everett, new look, new name for mainstay Behar’s Furniture

Conlin’s Furniture, based in South Dakota, bought the huge store and celebrates with a grand opening this week.