Paging James Cameron: this startup is building submarines that can go as deep as you like!
While I was interviewing Adeo Ressi of the Founder Institute, he casually mentioned that he just came back from Croatia, where he had met with the founder of a submarine startup. Naturally, I had to find out more: the startup is called the Marine Tech Factory, and it’s in the process of patenting a few very innovative approaches to deep ocean exploration.
The company was founded by Marin Bek – a polite 26 year old graduate of the university of Zagreb, where he obtained a masters in Electrical Engineering and Information Technology. Bek is looking for at least a few million, he explains, to bring his creation to his clients, mostly offshore companies.
His promise is that his technology will allow them to go as deep as they like: “We can go to Mars, but the deep ocean really is our final frontier”. So he wants to become the Elon Musk of the deep sea, I ask, which makes him laugh.
As a bonus, Marin has to pull this off in a country with no entrepreneurial network to speak of, let alone a VC community. “When I tell people that I’m looking for two million euros to start my company, they look at me strangely,” he says. He admits that these looks sometimes make him doubt his own sanity. But first things first: let’s talk about the submarines.
“They’re not submarines”
The first thing to know is that they’re not actually submarines, Marin explains – quite patiently, for a man who has had to explain this to probably everybody he meets. Submarines take marines under water: they’re manned vehicles. The correct term for what he’s building is ROV or AUV, for remotely operated vehicle or autonomous underwater vehicle. “But I’m used to people calling them submarines.”
The idea of building submarines came to him when in college, a tutor handed him a document from NASA, detailing specs for a small, inexpensive underwater vehicle. Something that could be built cheaply and then tossed into the sea – or into Europa, a moon of Jupiter where astronomers have found a mass of liquid water that they’re dying to explore.
Marin Bek: “That’s where it started. I knew next to nothing about these submarines – I’d seen a National Geographic documentary once about the exploration of the Titanic wreck, but that was it. But it seemed like an interesting problem. So I started out with developing a concept – I wrote a bunch of them for interuniversity papers. And in time, I started making prototypes.”
“It was just more challenging than writing code, you know? I was a computer sciences student at the time and I got so sick of it. Everything has been done, I felt, there’s nothing new and innovative to do. I’m a very good programmer – it’s my day job. But everybody can go on StackOverflow and it all ends up with everybody doing more or less the same thing.”
“Working on the prototypes gave me an opportunity to actually build something, it’s more hands on, you know? I have a background in electronics, I was a bit of a hardware hacker as a kid. And the university had everything you could dream of: a whole lab to do research, all the instruments you could dream of, and even a pool to test my machines. Everything that might stop you from hacking this sort of thing at home was right there, waiting to be used (laughs).”
The hacker ethos: hands on, DIY
Marin’s first impressions of the field were that he’d certainly picked a sizeable challenge, he says. “It’s a field where you have to combine mechanical engineering, electronics and then coding to drive the whole thing in a very demanding and difficult environment. I didn’t have a huge experience in engineering, so I had to learn quickly. You’re putting electronics in a container to drive it around under water – that’s always a bit terrifying. But it quickly became obvious to Marin that there was actually quite some room for improvement in submarine technology.
Marin Bek: “Most people who work in the field are awful at electronics – they just don’t know what’s possible. Most people just put a computer inside the vehicle, and that’s it. They don’t put any realtime linux or coding kernel in it. They’re in shock when I tell them about what microcontrollers can do at a very small scale.”
“For a long time, my main innovation was to improve the electronics in underwater vehicle. And since I had everything in very small dimensions, I thought it would be cool to also make a miniature propulsion system. Which turned out to be impossible: there are no propulsion systems smaller than a closed fist – which was way to big and much too powerful for me.”
“That’s when I started looking into making my own propulsion system – a much smaller one. At first I wanted to make a normal underwater motor – smaller in size, but still conventionally designed. But it turned out that even the parts weren’t available that small. Things like motorshafts, rubber O-rings to seal the pressure hull, windings. Nobody needs parts that small underwater.”
No hull, no limits
A pressured hull, Marin explaines, is a closed compartment where all the electrical parts of the propulsion system of an underwater vehicle are. These are parts that just stop working when they come into contact with water. So you put them in a hull, seal the hull. Solved. But of course, this hull creates problems of its own, because it needs to withstand the pressure of the deep ocean – which become very very impressive when you go to a few kilometers deep:
In the deepest ocean, the pressure is equivalent to one person trying to support 50 jumbo jets! (from here)
Which eventually led Marin to develop a propulsion system without a pressured hull.
Marin Bek: “That is actually the main innovation of my vehicle. Everything about the propulsion system can be underwater, there is no need to seal off a hull. Because the hull creates most of the problems anyway – like leakage, or wear and tear – it also eliminates most of the maintenance work you have to do on the submarine motor.”
And because the hull is really the limiting factor for ultra deep diving, Marin’s vehicle can go as deep into the sea as you want it to go. “Well, almost as deep as you want. The electronics still need to be pressurized in some form. But there are no moving parts in the main housing, no shafts going in or out, so there is no need for radial o-rings to make it watertight.”
You can see Marin’s submarine in action in these video’s:
Dry test of the submarine’s propulsion system:
Wet test of the submarine’s propulsion system:
Call me Ducky, the submarine
The innovation part is locked down firmly – Marin is currently working on patenting his innovations on the underwater vehicle. He has a prototype, which he affectionately dubbed “DuckyAUV”. On his website, he proudly writes:
“This micro-class AUV codename “DuckyAUV” packs an astounding AnalogDevices Blackfin BF537E DSP processor capable of 7 layered pipeline processing along with all other peripherals in a tube housing just below 300x120mm, with enough space to pack all electronics and batteries!”
But the hardest part is now to take his innovations and build them into a viable product.
It would be great to do some stunts to get the word out, I say. This, he acknowledges. “It would be cool to break some kind of record with the vehicles, Richard Branson style. But I have no money, so I’m concentrating first on building my prototype and finding clients.”
He realises that his inventions are cool for science, but he doesn’t want to market it to scientists. “I’ll be happy to show it to them and sell it to them. And it wold be pretty cool if my invention could go 8 or 9 kilometers deep into the ocean – it really is the final frontier, you know? We went to the moon, Mars is next, but the sea is still very inaccessible to us. Every time we go to 8 or 9 kilometers deep – which we do only rarely – we find new species. But scientists have no money.”
“So my main market is probably the offshore industry: they need to inspect oil rigs, offshore wind turbines, etcetera. They use divers for that, but they could probably use my vehicles too. One of the things I improved is the camera on the vehicle. It’s full HD, as opposed to the crappy 380×240 resolution that current underwater vehicles usually offer. It’s really fun to use.”
“A second market would be private boat owners. There’s about 20 million of them – and they all need to inspect their hull from time to time. Now they use divers, but if my solution is cheap enough, I might sell to them to. Also, it’s a great toy to play around with for people who don’t dive but still want to explore what’s under water.”
And now the hard part: how to actually build a submarine startup in Croatia?
From building great tech to building a company is a big leap. Why did you choose to try to bring it to the market?
Marin Bek: “I just enjoy this so much. I first thought I’d find employment somewhere in this field, but working for someone else just didn’t appeal to me that much. I’m just sure there’s a market for this, I get great feedback from industry people. My product solves a need.”
Do you have any entrepreneurs in your family?
Marin Bek: “No. It’s really all a coincidence. Me and my advisor wanted to start company, but we realised soon that it would take a lot of resources. And we had no way to find money for this, so I started surfing the web for angel investment funds. And that’s when I stumbled onto a commercial for the Founder Institute. It’s quite clear to me that I lack a lot of knowledge on the business side, so I’m working hard on that. I’m in the middle of following the Founder Institute lectures on incorporating, financing, all those things.”
“You know, I have a prototype, but I haven’t even seen it for months, because of all this other stuff I have to do.”
How much do you need to go to the market?
Marin Bek: “We didn’t get to the lectures about financing yet, but I think we’ll need roughly 2 million € for all the copyrighting issues, the patenting. That costs an awful lot of money, especially if you want to protect yourself from the Chinese. The problem with building it is that every component is custom made, the hull, the motor parts, everything. So the manufacturing will be very costly – I talk to people in the Founder Institute who build software, and they spend millions in developing. You can’t imagine what it costs to physically manufacture something.”
You make it sound like it’s actually madness?
Marin Bek: “Well, it is, and I’m terrified of the whole thing. It took me a while to figure it out – I didn’t know what I felt. I don’t scare easily. I jumped out of airplanes. But this is a whole other package. Then I realised: I’m frightened (laughs). Tomorrow, I have a Skype interview with an offshore guy about my project. Then I suddenly realise: my little vehicle should go down with a diver and shouldn’t kill him while he’s undersea, you know?”
You’re also one of the first generations of entrepreneurs in Croatia, I guess?
Marin Bek: “Yes. There’s only one angel network in Croatia. They function, they have a few projects, but that’s it, you know. It’s not like Western Europe or Silicon Valley where VC’s see hundreds of projects each week.”
“Also, in my network there’s no one who understands what I’m doing. I tell people I’m doing an underwater vehicle – “great!” I want to get two million to build it. “WHAT?”
What’s the most surprising thing that you’ve learned so far?
Marin Bek: “Oh, the whole thing is just such an experience. I feel a lot of things are happening by luck, like dominoes falling. Like getting to know Adeo Ressi, who recommends me a VC to contact. Maybe that’s the most bedazzling part of it: I was aware that networking and the business side was important, but I didn’t know it was so critical to success. I mean: I have a prototype lying around but it’s been months since I actually saw it. I just have no time to work on it.”
“A Founder Institute mentor told me: you’ll have to be able to persuade people who don’t even know that these kinds of vehicles exist, and convince them to buy into your vision to sell it to people they also don’t know exist. That’s a pretty good summary of where I am right now (laughs).”
Visit Marin’s website: marinetechfactory.com
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