Houston Mechatronics wants to take underwater robotics to a new level by developing an untethered way to work underwater. Its Aquanaut is like a subsea robot transformer; it moves through water like an AUV, then transforms into an ROV to perform its duties. You’ll love this interview!
Russ: Hi, I’m Russ Capper and this is HXTV, championing Houston’s innovators and entrepreneurs. Brought to you by PKF Texas, CPAs and advisors servicing Houston’s innovators for over 15 years. My guest today, Nic Radford, Co-founder and CTO of Houston Mechatronics. Nic, great to have you on the show.
Nic: Russ, pleasure.
Russ: Tell us about Houston Mechatronics.
Nic: Houston Mechatronics is, in my humble opinion, one of the most exciting robotics startup companies that we’ve got going on. We are completely revolutionizing the way work is being done offshore, both at the topside and in the subsea world.
Russ: How old is the company?
Nic: The company actually just went through its five-year anniversary, but like all startup companies, it takes a little while to get it going, get off the ground, kind of moves around a little bit. So, I’d say we’ve been in business probably about four years.
Russ: And how many people do you have here today?
Nic: We hired three people this week and I got kinda lost on the numbers, but I’ll call it a solid 70.
Russ: I would assume that a great majority of them are engineers?
Nic: Yeah, actually. In fact, there’s even subdivisions with that. About half the company is software. I think it’s really important to point that out, because, especially in such a multidisciplinary field like robotics, it takes this confluence of discipline; software, mechanical and electrical all coming together, building some really creative and exciting stuff.
Russ: Now the backbone of the company today, the product backbone of the company today is the Aquanaut. Tell us about that.
Nic: You can see the happiest robot in the ocean behind us. That is something that we’re pushing out and promoting as a new way to do work under water. We just don’t think that the last 40 years really represents what the next 40 years is going to look like, and so we feel we’re right on that inflection point and we’re pushing real hard toward that.
Russ: It is an underwater vehicle. I guess there could be several markets, several industries that would be interested in such a device.
Nic: Perfectly put, because oil and gas is just one of them. There are multiple adjacent markets that we plan on exploring into. You can think of underwater telecommunications work. There’s actually, the compute industry is looking offshore to do several things with server farms. You can also look at other things like offshore wind and the expansion of those type of energy markets and doing all the inspection and maintenance of those infrastructures. Oil and gas just represents one market of many that we’re going to be using this product in.
Russ: What can it do?
Nic: Right now, the way work is done offshore is that you’ll take your vessel out, you’ll steam it out, you’ll drop this, what they call an ROV, off the side, and it’s attached to a fairly long extension cord which kind of gets in the way a lot. It’s a pretty capable device, but the way that it’s controlled is very direct. Almost like you would have a backhoe operator on a big machine. It’s kind of just a long version of that. What we’ve been looking at is how we infuse more modern robotic techniques, a lot of which that we cut our teeth on at NASA and the spaceflight community. How we infuse those and completely change the way and therefore reduce the cost in which work is done under water.
Russ: Ok, so you’re replacing these devices that had these big umbilical cords today and people thought they were state of the art, but you’re kind of taking a couple of steps ahead.
Nic: What I find interesting is the companies that push those ROV technologies, they were really instrumental and innovative back in the day because they were replacing divers. A lot of robotic themes is how do we infuse robotic type capability to remove people from hazardous situations? They recognized that a long time ago and aptly solved the problem. Today we have other issues where that type of infrastructure really isn’t what’s going to probably win the day. What we represent here at Houston Mechatronics is taking some big bets in technology, and with a careful market study, going after what we think the real pain points are.
Russ: How big is it? How much does it weigh?
Nic: Aquanaut is actually a subsea robot transformer, right? And so, it’s got two forms. It’s got the form of an AUV, an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle, where it’s more sleek and goes through the water in a very streamlined way. When it gets on station, it transforms into this ROV looking thing. It weighs about 1,000 kilos and it’s about three and a half meters long and a couple meters wide in its sleek form, but then it can expand. It takes on many different forms, but in the space of ROVs and AUVs, it’s like a Saab Double Hull, a Sabertooth or an Oceaneering, you know. This is about those dimensions.
Russ: Ok, so an Aquanaut could be carried out on a boat, dropped in the water and be on its own, or it could come in off the shore, too, right? Totally independent.
Nic: Exactly right. There’s actually a myriad of ways that we could launch and deploy and recover these light, these distributed light assets. In fact, we see more of an ecosystem in play as opposed to the very point to point model that has been traditionally set up. You could drop this off of an autonomous helicopter if you wanted. You could drop this off an autonomous service vessel, or even a small vessel. You could launch it from shore, you could launch it from a ship that you already have out there or a drilling platform. What we are pursuing is a tetherless way to do work underwater.
Russ: You’ve mentioned a NASA background; you’ve mentioned VC funded; I want to cover both of those, but the VC funding, did that happen recently?
Nic: We actually had two capital rounds. Our first capital round we closed in 2015. We got out into the marketplace, got hooked up with a large oil and gas service company, and they recognized the value in what we were bringing. We had done quite a few instrumental things at NASA, and what we brought with that was some deep domain expertise about robotics. From that investment in 2015, we then parlayed that forward into a further capital raise. Another investment in March of 2018, where we closed a rather large capital round on what we call a Series B, and pulled on another company in the Houston marketplace to really attack this.
Russ: I guess, you know, in your space you not only need capital, but you sort of need Houston, too. I mean, that’s where your connection is to NASA and all these engineers. Is the Houston marketplace right for you?
Nic: You couldn’t tear me out of this city if you had to. I absolutely love Houston. In fact, I think it’s one of the most unsung areas to build up a business and develop in. The largest medical center in the world, the energy capital of the world, the aerospace that’s here, even the defense component of this. To me, we looked out and said, holy cow, all the opportunity that exists here. I don’t think we could have started this company somewhere else trying to do this energy play because we could just drive right up into the city and have meetings three times a week. I didn’t have to jump on a plane, I didn’t have to come down from Boston, I didn’t have to come over from San Jose or Palo Alto; I was right here. I got to know intimately this area and just, wow. It is underrated, and I actually don’t want to tell anybody. In fact, we should probably cut this part out.
Russ: Cut this.
Nic: Exactly, because we want to keep this for ourselves.
Russ: That’s right. That’s right. You’re located real close to NASA, too. You had quite a few years there. That’s where you really got into robotics, I mean, seriously.
Nic: Well, NASA, it was just such a privilege and an honor. The people that you get to work around there are just second to none. The problems you get to solve are literally out of this world, pun intended, I suppose. We got to work on some of the most capstone and flagship projects, and we studied problems that were so apropos to working underwater that we look back now in hindsight and say, holy cow. Just how serendipitous that whole experience was, right? NASA, we just tried to put a robot in a remote location, get it to do work, interact with the environment, be safe, with very little communication. We never got the opportunity to have our robots tethered, right? So far, we haven’t been able to tether anything to the earth, right? So, we had to solve that problem. Working under water is exactly that.
Russ: Well, it seems like working with robots, like you have for quite some time, is one thing, but working on robots that are under, in the sea, in the water, in the saltwater continuously operating could be an added challenge.
Nic: It is THE added challenge, actually. In fact, I get this question a few times here and there and everybody says, is it harder building robots for space or is it harder building robots under water? I haven’t decided whether it’s 10 times harder or 50 times harder building robots to go under water than it is in space. And then that’s not to take away anything from flying robots in space. It’s very challenging to get to space. You have to expend a significant amount of energy in a short period of time, but once you’re there, things are relatively calm. You can set something in motion in space and a thousand years later come back and have predicted with incredible precision where it will be. You cannot do that under water. Things grow on everything, it’s turbulent, there’s stuff everywhere, there’s sand, there’s silt, you can’t see, it’s dark, it’s extremely cold, and the pressure. We’ve got the weight of the ocean when we’re under water. We have the weight of the ocean bearing down on us, and so, yes, it is extraordinarily challenging.
Russ: Ok, Nic, it’s very impressive what’s going on here today, but share your perspective. What would you like the company to be like 10 years from now?
Nic: Ten years from now what I see is a lot of our internal product development efforts have really taken hold in the industry and then have flourished. Aquanaut, principally, being our largest product development, but we also have a lot of other opportunities when it comes to offshore automation. We’re looking in intelligent drilling, we’re looking in intelligent safety systems that interact with the living, breathing rig, we also see connecting that to an entire ecosystem of Aquanauts as they’re working offshore. This play is just not about building the happiest robot in the ocean and getting it to do its job. It’s actually threading an entire ecosystem together, digital top to bottom, increasing efficiency, safety, and reducing costs for the entire industry.
Russ: Nic, I really appreciate you sharing your story with us.
Nic: It’s a pleasure to speak with you.
Russ: You bet. And that wraps up my discussion with Nic Radford, Co-founder and CTO of Houston Mechatronics. And this is HXTV.
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