HAIFA, Israel — If it’s possible to make news quietly, then that’s what Israeli entrepreneur Eli Fruchter did earlier this year when his company, EZ Chip (who, for the last 15 years have been supplying with similar quietude an ethernet technology ubiquitous the world over) was acquired for over $800 million.
The understated media attention was well-suited to Fruchter, who is soft-spoken, deliberate and deceivingly humble.
No such luck this August, however, when the internet got wind of a YouTube video he uploaded showing off the 37,000 liter (10,000 gallons, including the filtration system) home reef aquarium in his living room — large enough for him to get inside and swim among the fish.
It is the second clip he’s posted showcasing his amazing project. Within days the video racked up a stunning 250,000 hits and news outlets from Ireland to India called to speak with him. The erstwhile CEO was even covered by Israeli pop culture show HaZinor.
After paying a visit to Fruchter’s Haifa home, The Times of Israel can attest: The aquarium is certainly newsworthy.
Over 150 colorful fish of 30 different species glide and flit through the mammoth tank, while a rainbow of corals bob lightly back and forth on waves of alternating current produced by the filtration system. The currents are just one of many factors designed to replicate the reef’s natural environment, producing a facsimile realistic enough to allow the aquarium’s first resident to grow to a size normally only achieved in the wild.
“Most of these fish are called Tangs,” — a saltwater variety common among home enthusiasts — Fruchter tells The Times of Israel. “They are mostly vegetarian, but on the base of their tail, they have knives — real knives, sharp ones. And they use these knives to attack, and also to defend themselves.” Also among the biodiversity swim several specimens with a prominent elongated proboscis, the aptly-named Unicorn fish.
Each week, Fruchter drives a specially equipped golf cart a few minutes from his home to the Mediterranean Sea, to replenish 1,000 liters of the tank’s contents with fresh seawater.
“The corals especially must have water that’s completely clean, and that’s very hard to get in a closed system,” he says. “Most public aquariums are located near the ocean, and they just pump in clean water.”
“It requires a lot of maintenance,” he adds. “A reef aquarium of this size you usually just find in places where they have a full-time staff.”
Newly retired — though still dispensing advice and working part time on the board of Nova, another Israeli hi-tech company — Fruchter, 63, has a little more free time these days to dedicate to his marine hobby.
Unsurprising for an Israeli hi-tech CEO, he has programmed many functions such as feeding, temperature, and the retractable sunroof to be controlled via an app on his phone.
While that’s impressive, what’s truly stunning is Fruchter’s elaborate filtration system. Located one floor directly below the aquarium, the system can be found behind thick metal double-doors.
Manage to pry the doors open, and the smell of seawater hits the nostrils just as the cacophonous grind of the three powerful pumps envelops. The noise inhibits conversation but encourages wordless exploration into the room, which houses the guts of the aquarium. There, amid the hum of the machinery and winding PVC pipe, lie several smaller tanks — although still large enough to be proudly showcased in a more standard living room.
In one such tank, several young shrimp are gradually acclimating to future conditions in the main aquarium.
“I have to see that they are doing well, the new ones,” Fruchter says, leaning over and looking down his glasses at them.
Designed by Fruchter himself, the filter uniquely relies on gravity caused by falling water to create a heady foam from the impurities. The foam is then skimmed off the top by a revolving paddle, leaving the clean water to be pumped into a series of reservoirs before being returned to the main tank.
All in all, the system filters 100,000 liters of water per hour, or about three times the aquarium’s volume.
As he latches the heavy door to the filtration room behind him, the hint of a self-deprecating smile can be spotted in Fuchter’s profile.
“There aren’t too many crazy people around the world who will do something like this,” he says. “You really need to like it a lot.”
Despite the timing of the video, the aquatic endeavor is clearly not the caprice of a newly-retired rich guy.
“I grew up in a very small room, here in Haifa, in another part of Haifa,” he says. “The room was two meters by two meters. And even then, when I was five or six, I had an aquarium. So I guess you can say I’ve been doing this all my life.”
Since then, Fruchter has scaled up significantly.
“I moved from a small one to a bigger one,” he says. “About 10 or 12 years ago, in my old house, I had one — not as big as this, maybe 1,000 gallons — and then it broke, and it flooded my house. That’s when I decided I need to build another aquarium, and the house around it.”
Five years in, the reef aquarium is still a work in progress. Fruchter sees it being another few years before the ecosystem is fully developed. Corals in particular can take many years to begin to flourish.
In the meanwhile, he continues his research by watching the BBC, participating in online forums and viewing YouTube videos from other hobbyists.
“What I’m trying to do is learn from others and show what I’m doing so people can learn from each other, that’s the main purpose why I put the video up,” he says.
Fruchter says this isn’t about publicity, and that he was even surprised at how much attention his video got.
“When I made my first video last year, I thought it might get a lot of hits — but this last video was much more technical, about the filtration system,” Fruchter said. “I thought it was just going to be seen by the enthusiasts who requested it. But then it became popular on reddit [a content website], and then it just exploded. And that’s when you called, and HaZinor called, and everybody called, so now I’m… becoming famous.”
While a lesser person might struggle with vanity in such a situation, the newly-retired CEO says he’s not thrilled with his moment in the sun.
“I don’t like it. I managed a public company that was worth a billion dollars for many years, and I never appeared on television. So I’ve never had, you know, people that — ” cutting himself off mid-sentence, Fruchter’s eyes were drawn to one of the aquarium’s inhabitants. “This guy is living inside the sand, he goes at night under the sand and he sleeps there, and now he’s digging, trying to find worms and stuff to eat, it’s very interesting.”
“So yeah,” he said, returning to the question. “I don’t really like the attention, but it’s something, that if you put it on the internet, it can happen.”