Anthony Baro has a unique ability to visualize what’s yet to exist.
It’s allowed him to design and patent inventions. It’s helped him grow E2SOL LLC, a renewable-energy firm in Providence.
More recently, the ocean has become his muse, and he and partner Chris Fagan launched PowerDocks LLC, a venture focused on aquatic electrical charging platforms.
Baro envisions marine and undersea technology transforming the industry on Narragansett Bay and beyond. Startups – he says – could play a pivotal role.
“There is incredible potential for the marine-technology sector to develop in Rhode Island and Massachusetts,” Baro said.
The ocean long has been considered an underused asset in Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts. Advocates for decades have called on policymakers to better leverage the natural resource.
Some of the biggest economic advancements related to the ocean in recent years have happened in hospitality and tourism. But as technology continues to change how people and companies interact with the world, advocates and entrepreneurs such as Baro are making bets that marine-based technology is finally poised to have its great breakthrough.
They’re not alone.
The University of Massachusetts Dartmouth is banking on it, according to Tobias Stapleton, vice chancellor and director of its Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. The school recently spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on new 3-D printing equipment at the CIE to help marine-based technology startups more rapidly create prototypes of their inventions.
“This region – really without much exaggeration – could be the next Silicon Valley of marine technology,” said Stapleton, echoing statements made about the region by former U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel in 2014.
A consortium of businesses and educational facilities in Rhode Island is eyeing a potentially significant deal involving marine technology with the U.S. Department of Defense.
To date, however, supporting infrastructure and tangible financial backing beyond military-related licensing and acquisition has been slow to materialize in the Ocean State, making it difficult at times for entrepreneurs to succeed in the space.
Nonetheless, there are multiple groups and individuals working to push the industry into the foreground of discussions about economic development, and there are signs those efforts are paying off.
“Timing in life is everything,” said Thomas B. Carroll, director of defense commercialization at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Newport. “The stars are aligned and the timing is right, so I think we’re close.”
Underwater and other marine-based technology isn’t new to the region.
From Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Falmouth, Mass., to NUWC, the seaside is dotted with educational and research institutions, along with marine- and defense-related companies, that have developed such technology for decades.
But there’s long been a sense the sector is underdeveloped.
“It’s always kind of surprising in the Ocean State that ocean technology isn’t a big industry for us other than boating, yachting and tourism,” said Theresa A. Baus, head of the technology partnerships office at NUWC.
Baus fills a congressionally mandated position and is charged with better connecting the inventions made inside of NUWC to the private sector and civilian life. NUWC, a research and development arm of the U.S. Navy, employs 3,300 federal employees and contracts with another 2,500 people in Newport.
The city itself is trying to leverage marine-based technology to help address issues related to climate change. City officials are in the process of fielding proposals to build the long-anticipated Innovate Newport, a business incubator designed to – among other things – help support more marine-based technology startups.
“Marine-based technologies … [are] very much part of the city’s economic-development strategy, focused on innovation and resilience,” said Paul Carroll, director of civic investment for Newport.
Innovate Newport, which received $2.1 million through the state incentive program Rebuild RI, is finally moving forward with the project after several years of planning.
The goal is to start construction this month, according to Scott A. Gibbs, president of The Economic Development Foundation of Rhode Island, who oversees the project.
The region at large has benefited from big-name military contractors, such as General Dynamics Electric Boat, Raytheon Integrated Defense Systems, SEA Corp. and McLaughlin Research Corp., to name a few.
The marine-based technology community – which extends west across Narragansett Bay to the University of Rhode Island, specifically its schools of engineering and oceanography – also continues east to Fall River, where UMass Dartmouth opened the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship in 2001.
The center, which is home to several marine-based tech startups, including PowerDocks, recently received state funding to purchase 3-D printers, allowing entrepreneurs to rapidly prototype inventions. The center also offers office space, workshop facilities and consultation services.
Similarly, URI has an Equipment Development Laboratory in its Graduate School of Oceanography, which helps students and faculty develop and test scientific equipment. The school also offers the URI SPARC, a resource center for startups that offers consultation services among other things.
The facility is available to nonstudent users outside of URI.
“Between the ocean engineering department and GSO there is a high level of capability in facilities and expertise available for businesses to engage in,” wrote Deedee Chatham, director of entrepreneurship and innovation at URI, in an email. “Also, there is universitywide 3-D printing capability available.”
‘This region – really without much exaggeration – could be the next Silicon Valley of marine technology.’
TOBIAS STAPLETON, UMass Dartmouth Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship director
George N. Nickolopoulos, relationship manager at the URI Business Engagement Center, estimates about a dozen outside companies use the EDL each year. He works specifically with defense- and marine-related trades, and when asked whether the region could become the Silicon Valley of marine-based technology, Nickolopoulos responded without hesitation.
“I couldn’t agree stronger,” he said. “It is staggering how many companies work in that space when you get to know them.”
Molly Donohue Magee, executive director of The Southeastern New England Defense Industry Alliance, an advocate of the regional defense industry known as SENEDIA, estimates 170 companies in the state are working in the undersea-technology space.
“Rhode Island really is a leader,” Magee said.
UMass Dartmouth, meanwhile, is doing its part to advance the industry, giving special attention to nonstudent entrepreneurs.
CIE services, along with its new 3-D printing technology, has had success luring Rhode Island startups across the border to use the facilities.
Baro and Fagan, for instance, moved PowerDocks to the CIE to take advantage of the new technology.
Massachusetts leaders are more than happy to host the Rhode Island companies, and are hopeful the new tools at the CIE will help spur more activity in the region.
Mass. Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito lauded a new CIE lab that includes the 3-D printing technology at a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Aug. 25. She shared her vision for economic prosperity of the region.
“We’re at the beginning of something that’s really going to grow and bring a lot of good-paying jobs and good opportunities,” Polito said. “You will be the global epicenter for innovation and marine robotics.”
Stapleton, who counted at least five Rhode Island startups working out of the center, said there’s room for Massachusetts and Rhode Island to collaborate in pushing the industry forward. But he acknowledged the border does divide efforts at times.
“There’s always talk about the border – an ‘us versus them’ mentality – but I think that it’s time now for us to talk about ways to galvanize behind [marine-based] technology and help push everyone forward,” he said.
A common denominator between states is underwater unmanned vehicles, which many people in the industry think hold the key to future growth.
The focus follows excitement and money being pumped into above-ground and flying drones. Companies, including Aquabotix Technology Corp. in Fall River, are trying to drum up comparable enthusiasm for their underwater counterparts.
“Underwater drones are taking off as we’re speaking,” Aquabotix founder Durval Tavares told Providence Business News earlier this year.
The company, with about 22 employees, recorded $1.2 million in sales last year, and expects to reach $2 million this year. Tavares took the company public on the Australian Securities Exchange, and exceeded the maximum subscription set at about $5.5 million.
Aquabotix unmanned vehicles carry high-definition cameras that can send live, recordable video to the operator, which has yielded the attention of other water-related sectors, including aquaculture, energy and potable drinking water.
Tavares called the region a “hot-bed for underwater technology.” He said his company does about 80 percent of its sales in the commercial space, which spells out one of the challenges associated with underwater technology – initial applications can be limited.
“When you look at the marine-technology world, we’re not talking about selling 100,000 pieces of equipment. You’re not going to sell thousands of those, you’re going to sell dozens of them,” Stapleton said.
Thorne Sparkman, managing principal at the Slater Technology Fund, a publicly funded venture capital firm in Providence, largely agrees.
“There’s not a revolution in marine technology that’s going to put an autonomous underwater vehicle in everyone’s house,” he said.
Tavares and others, however, are looking to make the technology more affordable and applicable to the average consumer. Tavares is heartened to see his technology gaining some traction with boaters, for instance, who use the drones to examine their vessels.
Nickolopoulos says URI has recognized the trend and is spending more time and resources on bolstering faculty that specializes in unmanned marine technology.
“We are hiring heavily in ocean robotics because that’s an area of growth,” he said.
PowerDocks, meanwhile, aspires to be the bridge that connects marine-based technology to everyday life on the ocean, and has developed a free-floating autonomous marine platform powered by renewable energy. The platforms, quite literally “power docks,” are designed to power equipment, store electricity and charge equipment.
And the company, with about eight interns and 10 employees, is putting that power into the pocket of consumers.
“You see this? We’re right here,” Fagan told a PBN reporter, pointing to a map of Narragansett Bay on his smartphone.
The map had a mark on it, showing where one of the PowerDocks devices was floating in Newport harbor. Fagan was standing in Fall River at the time.
“Our batteries are fully charged, the temperature of the battery is 80 degrees, we know exactly where it is all the time and we have the ability to turn things on and turn things off,” he explained.
Baro took it a step further.
The technology, he said, may seem the most applicable to the boating community right now, but Baro sees it becoming much more.
He sees it as a power source for Aquabotix drones, meaning the unmanned vehicles could connect to his dock to charge, making it unnecessary to return to the operator on long journeys.
Likewise, unmanned flying drones could land on the dock to receive charges, which is the basis for Blue Isles Media, a spinoff of PowerDocks that would connect aquatic sporting events and viewers regardless of location.
“The drones can land remotely and charge and then transport the picture back to spectators,” he said.
And as shipbuilders move away from designing vessels that use fossil fuel as a primary source of power, Baro sees the technology powering marinas and boats across the globe with renewable energy.
“There’s a whole value chain of companies that we’re looking to collaborate with,” he said.
At the same time, in September, The Hinckley Co., a luxury jetboats and sailboat builder based in Newport, unveiled the “world’s first fully electric luxury yacht.” The boatbuilder, with 200 Rhode Island employees and 700 nationwide, calls it the Hinckley Dasher.
The boat measures 28 feet, 6 inches in length and is powered by twin 80-horsepower electric motors and dual BMW i3 lithium-ion batteries releasing zero carbon emissions.
“We’ve always worked to combine the latest technology with cutting-edge, naval architecture to do what has not yet been done,” said Peter O’Connell, president and CEO of Hinckley, in a statement.
Sparkman, who invests in software, new media and energy-related technologies, however, looks at the marine-based technology sector and sees glaring hurdles, especially when it comes to funding.
“It’s not the cakewalk that you think it might be,” he said.
And he’s not sold that people will be buying.
“Is there innovation in the area that comes out of NUWC and Woods Hole? Absolutely. But at the end of the line, are there very large customers paying big dollars in the market? I think that’s less obvious,” Sparkman said.
The biggest investor of marine-based technology is the military.
NUWC operates like a business and does about 98 percent of its roughly $1 billion in sales each year with the U.S. Department of Defense.
But the federal government has historically been a clunky business partner when it comes to acquisitions. The procurement process can extend five years, making it especially difficult for fledgling startups to get a foot in the door.
And when there’s only one potential buyer out there, a term known as “monopsony,” marine-based technology startups look less attractive to potential early-stage investors who want to believe buyers will eventually come flocking.
“Venture capital is a funny area where people want to get their money in and out in five years and they want to make 10 to 100 times their investment,” Sparkman said. “Marine-based technology is not what a venture capitalist is looking for.”
NUWC, however, is trying to change that narrative by making the military a more nimble buyer.
‘This consortium is going to be the linchpin.’
THOMAS B. CARROLL, NUWC director of defense commercialization
The plan is to create a consortium of underwater-tech companies under a federal program called “other transactional authority,” or OTA. Congress first authorized OTA to NASA in 1958 to help expedite the country’s efforts to put the first human on the moon.
There are about 10 OTAs throughout the country, and the acquisition tool has proven largely successful, as it gives the government access to buy cutting-edge technology at a faster pace.
“We don’t want to buy things that are obsolete by the time they get to the field,” NUWC’s Thomas Carroll said.
NUWC is putting out a request for proposal for the OTA, which will focus on marine-based technology and be based out of Newport. Carroll expects the consortium to begin forming by year’s end and the effect could be transformative, he said.
Carroll, who is also a NUWC liaison to the R.I. Commerce Corp., the state’s economic-development arm, is responsible for helping the state grow this part of the economy. Carroll is encouraged by the support he’s received from state leaders, including Gov. Gina M. Raimondo and her team.
“We have planning meetings that [we] just didn’t have five years ago, and I think the governor has something to do with it,” he said.
Likewise, Magee said the state and federal governments have made recurring investments in the form of grants and workforce-training programs that have largely supported and propelled the industry.
Both Carroll’s and Magee’s outlooks are optimistic, especially with the prospects of setting up an OTA. Carroll points to Picatinny Arsenal as an example where OTAs have worked well.
The military research and manufacturing facility in Morris County, N.J., is home to the U.S. Army Explosive Ordinance Disposal Technology Directorate, a faction of the military that flourished after the facility started an OTA in the late 1990s.
The RFP has already spurred interest.
SENEDIA last year started a sister organization called the Undersea Technology Innovation Consortium. The group comprises organizations that include URI, General Dynamics, Raytheon and many others. The plan is to solicit marine-based technology firms in preparation of responding to the NUWC RFP.
Magee, also executive director of the consortium, said the group has heard from 225 companies from across the country interested in participating.
“The draw here is Rhode Island being the hub for undersea technology,” she said.
The group started last year with the goal of promoting “the rapid development, prototyping and commercialization of innovative undersea and maritime technology,” and has drawn praise from state and congressional leaders.
How the OTA might eventually impact the overall Rhode Island economy is difficult to predict, but Carroll said it will undoubtedly require the collaboration of academic research centers, such as URI and UMass Dartmouth, big-time military contractors such as General Dynamics and small startups.
The effort, Carroll said, could truly transform the region into a marine-based technology hub that advocates have long envisioned.
“This consortium is going to be the linchpin,” he said.