WHOI Pitchathon - October 5, 2018

This year’s WHOI Pitchathon competition was October 5 at Redfield Auditorium on Water Street in Woods Hole. The first to pitch his idea to the judges was John Reine, a research engineer.

The first Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) Pitchathon widely open to the public, and the fourth to be held, took place last Friday, October 5, and featured scientists seeking financial support for four projects.

The projects are:

• New database software to support WHOI’s “circular” style of work;

• A small underwater automated vehicle (UAV) that aims to inspect ocean-based wind generators;

• An effort to license a patented process to derive a wax from algae currently used only in fish food, as a natural ingredient in cosmetics;

• And a small electric motor with a revolutionary design that would enable higher speed at a lower power consumption.

A panel of five judges are expected to recommend an award of up to $100,000 to one or more presenters by October 30. The five judges are Larry Madu, deputy director and vice president of research at WHOI; David Aubrey, president and CEO of EOM Offshore, Pocasset, a WHOI spinoff; Yuki Honjo, COO of McLane Laboratories, East Falmouth, also a WHOI spinoff; Stan Kovall, an entrepreneur-in-residence at WHOI; and Peter Karls, president and CEO of NeuEon, Newton, a consulting firm that works with startups.

In the four-year history of the Pitchathon, 20 teams have competed for grants, requesting $1.4 million in total and winning $328,000 in awards, said David Knaack, director of technology transfer at WHOI, in opening comments. The four applicants competing in 2018 are requesting a total of $300,000. WHOI’s technology transfer model is to license technology to companies, which then bring it to market, enabling WHOI to derive royalty revenue from sales. Hydroid of Pocasset, supplier of the Remus underwater automated vehicle, and McLane Laboratories, which offers oceanographic profilers and samplers, are examples.

“Technology commercialization advances WHOI’s research mission; that’s why we do this,” Dr. Knaack said. “The awards are intended to fund applied research, and advance a product” in its development cycle, he said. The judging criteria include whether the project can be a product, whether it fills a market need, whether it works, whether it can be manufactured and whether target customers need it.

Seeking funding are the following projects:

Tailored To WHOI’s Workflow

WHOI research engineer John Reine works on the Ocean Observations Initiative (OOI), funded by the National Science Foundation, which uses ocean sensors to take a range of measurements. These include climate variations, ocean circulation and plate-scale geodynamics. Sensors are packed into mooring buoys over 30 feet high that stay in the sea from six to 12 months at a time. Some 20 buoys are now deployed worldwide as part of the OOI initiative.

Dr. Reine described a “circular” workflow at WHOI typical of this type of deployment. It includes four stages: assemble, deploy, recover and refurbish. When a buoy is recovered and brought back to WHOI, it is taken apart. Each part is tested. Parts that pass are used again; the ones that do not are replaced. This is different from consumer marketing cycles in which a product is shipped to a customer, and returns are failed or rejected products.

“Returns for us are a success, because we didn’t lose the buoy,” Dr. Reine said.

As a result, standard materials planning database products, serving what is a $7.6 billion commercial manufacturing market, do not fit for the WHOI process.

“We found a need for a database that works with the circular nature of the WHOI workflow, and that helps answer the question of whether a part will survive another deployment,” he said.

His solution was to design a database to serve WHOI’s workflow, believing it will be useful also to other organizations in and around oceanographic research. He calls it the Roundabout database, with an insight that “an object is always somewhere.” The database keeps a history of every part of every sub-assembly. “A parts history is used when you need high reliability,” he said.

The product today is a functioning prototype, expected to be fully functional in the spring of 2019. Interested customers he expects to include are other academic researchers and manufacturing companies serving the oceanographic industry. He is asking for $74,000 to advance the product.

During the judge question period, Dr. Honjo asked Dr. Reine how he plans to “monetize” the database. He said he is a believer in open source software, so he sees a revenue source possible from consulting services to companies who want to integrate it with their own systems. The data on projected product lifetimes should also be of interest to manufacturers, he suggested. “Oceanography is a niche industry,” Dr. Reine said. “As a result, the data will have high value.”

Asked if he had spoken to any companies outside WHOI about Roundabout, Dr. Reine said, he had not. His plan is to walk around different departments at WHOI to try to define the requirements more broadly, so the database would be in a position to appeal to a wider market.

Mobile Platform To Capture Images For Inspections Of Wind Generators

Research engineers Jeff Kaeli and Robin Littlefield, who work in the Applied Ocean Physics and Engineering section of WHOI, propose a small UAV that can capture images underwater. The pair are aiming their product at the wind generation industry, which is projected to grow from a $90 million industry today to a $480 million industry by 2025.

Their UAV project has been underway since 2014, so it is fairly far along. “We are close to putting it in the water and testing it,” Dr. Kaeli said. They need to work next on the nose and antennae system. He expected a full prototype to be ready in 2019. They believe they can price their system at approximately $75,000.

Deepwater Wind, which is operating its first ocean wind generator off Block Island and is proposing an ocean wind farm off Martha’s Vineyard, is proposing to build 100 wind generators within five years.

Those companies need inspection survey systems, which are in development, so the timing is good. “Their method for conducting surveys are not fully defined, and they are looking for better ways to do it,” Dr. Littlefield said.

Deepwater wind is using human divers, some of their own employees and some from hired companies. Each inspection is estimated to cost between $20,000 and $40,000.

Dr. Aubrey of EOM Offshore, who has vast experience with ocean mooring systems and components, asked the pair how much data they plan to transmit. “”We will not transmit any image data,” said Dr. Kaeli; instead, the UAV will be recovered to get the image data. Dr. Aubrey suggested the small UAV might be challenged in strong ocean currents; he asked if it could navigate in a one-knot current. Dr. Littlefield said, “We can overcome a one-knot current, for sure.”

Algae For Natural Cosmetics

Growing demand for “green” products in cosmetics is the market driver for a project to convert algae used primarily today in fish food to be useful in cosmetics.

“This can be grown in a tank, it is green and sustainable and has a superior product performance,” said Dr. Mark Lowenstein, a business advisor to the Pitchathon, who was substituting for senior scientist Chris Reddy, who was away.

The marine microalgae Isochrysis, called by some an aquarium “superfood,” is the basis for this innovation. “It’s been grown commercially for 35 years,” Dr. Lowenstein said. “Chris came up with a way to extract from it and end up with a wax that can be used in the cosmetics industry.”

The scientists see lipstick and sunscreen as good potential markets. Dr. Lowenstein said the extraction process is patented, and they could use $75,000 to begin taking it to market, in part by starting conversations with relevant cosmetics companies.

“There is no technical risk with this; the process is [as complex as] freshman chemistry,” Dr. Lowenstein said.

Some 98 percent of the wax used in cosmetics today is fossil fuel-based. “Cosmetic industry growth overall today is flat; the organic or natural segment is growing faster,” Dr. Lowenstein said.

Better Electric Motor

A better electric motor is the focus of a project from Andrew Billings, an engineer in the Applied Ocean Physics and Engineering area of WHOI. “The idea came from my frustration with specifying motors for thrusters, pumps and actuators that go into equipment that we put on the bottom of the ocean. We are reliant on batteries, which have a limited energy and are used for low voltage. Motors like high voltage. My strategy is to separate the torque constant from the voltage constant.”

His design calls for multiple motors on a single shaft, that can shift from high to low speed by use of a clutch or an electromagnetic disconnect system.

“The power moves from one motor to the next seamlessly,” he said. “The benefits are less power consumption and a wider speed range.”

His team has applied for a provisional patent. The technology exists; Dr. Billings is looking for funding to build the prototype.

The overall market for brushless DC motors is about $8 billion; they are used in many devices, including air conditioners, fans and computer hard drives.

Dr. Billings plans to initially target specialized pumps, which he estimates to be a $1 million market, or much more if the military gets interested.

He requested $70,000 to buy the supplies and fund the work needed to produce the motor in six months. From that, he will write a paper and use it to try to interest manufacturers.

Asked how big the motor would be, Dr. Billings said for an AUV, a 4-inch by 2-inch motor could produce two to three horsepower and operate at low voltage very efficiently.

After the Pitchathon, Dr. Billings described his project.

“AUVs and some ROVs run on batteries. Electric motors consume a lot of energy and limit submersibles’ mission duration by using up the batteries.

“The new motor is energy-efficient because it optimizes efficiency of operation at different speeds. It does this by putting what is essentially two or more motors with different power efficiency on one driveshaft.”

John P. Desmond is a technology writer and part-time teacher. He can be reached at jd@jdcontentservices.com.

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