Oceans of opportunity: surveying 2020’s seafaring startup potential

Space attracts a lot of attention as an area of frontier tech investment and entrepreneurship, but there’s another vast expanse that could actually be more addressable by the innovation economy — Earth’s oceans.

Seafaring startups aren’t attracting quite as much attention as their spacefaring cousins, but 2019 still saw a flurry of activity in this sector and 2020 could be an even big year for everything aquatic.

Sounding the depths of data collection

One big similarity between space tech and seafaring opportunities is that data collection represents a significant percent of the potential market. Data collection in and around Earth’s oceans has increased dramatically in recent years thanks to the availability, efficacy and cost of sensor technologies — in 2017, it was estimated that as much ocean data had been gathered in the past two years as in all of human history. But relatively speaking, that barely scratches the surface.

Ocean observation has largely been driven by scientific and research goals, which means there’s bound to be a pretty hard cap on available funding. But ocean data has value in all kinds of private’s sector pursuits, including the potential for autonomous commercial cargo transportation (more on that later), as well as predicting weather and climate conditions that impact shipping routes, agriculture and more.

Various methods exist for collecting data about Earth’s oceans, including space-based satellite observation. Startups like Terradepth, Saildrone and Promare have all proposed various autonomous seafaring data collection vehicle designs that could leverage robotics to bring ocean observation at scale closer to home. These firms are using technology that’s been made affordable for startup budgets through miniaturization and efficiency gains evolved through the progress of the smartphone and other computing industries.

This past year, Xprize awarded millions in prize money to teams that competed in the Ocean Discovery competition for autonomous ocean floor mapping, which is resulting in spin-out ventures that have a head start on success.

As in space, data collection and observation can take many forms, so we can expect to see many industry-specific approaches emerge to capitalize on what are surprisingly large market opportunities, even for seemingly narrow types of data. Continued efforts to refine and improve robotics technologies like sensing and vision should drive even more growth in autonomous ocean observation in 2020.

Autonomous logistics

Oceanfaring drones aren’t just about data collection, however; a huge portion of the global logistics market still relies on giant cargo vessels. The drive to automate container ships is nothing new, but it’s reaching a point where we’re actually starting to see autonomous cargo vehicles embark, including this Chinese cargo ship that set out from Guangdong at the end of this year and a ship called the Yara Birkeland has begun trials out of Rotterdam and expects to be operating fully autonomously by 2022.

The latter project is actually using autonomy as a tool to improve energy efficiency, which enables the use of electric powertrains in new cargo ships to be developed. That’s an important signal when it comes to autonomous ocean transportation as a whole: it’s not necessarily an end in itself, because unlike in the automotive industry, there’s no significant or apparent safety benefit to autonomy. But using autonomous systems to optimize energy consumption and enabling the use of alternative fuel sources for moving large loads across vast distances is a strong incentive for shipping concerns that stand to save millions, if not billions, on annual fuel costs.

Some startups are already focusing on this challenge, including Sea Machines Robotics, Orca AI and Shone, tackling either pieces of the puzzle like obstacle avoidance or full-fledged automation systems for both new and existing vehicles. As with land-based vehicle automation, the problems that need solutions are many and complex, meaning there are many points along the chain at which startups can add value — and unlike on land, there are probably actually fewer challenges to consider net, given that the ocean is a wide-open playing field compared to congested city roads, or even rural highways.

Fisheries and food

Global fisheries accounted for more than $240 billion in 2017 in commercial fishing alone, a sector expected to grow rapidly over the next decade. Technology will play an increasingly integral role, especially as it pertains to sustainable fishery practices and agriculture through fish farming.

In part, industry opportunities for fishery-related tech startups and investment overlap with those for data collection, since an informed and well-understood supply chain is key to building more sustainable and economically viable ocean-based food businesses. But aquaculture, or the farming of fish for food purposes specifically, is a huge and largely ignored market that has as much, if not more potential when compared to traditional land-based agricultural businesses when it comes to the opportunity for innovation and disruption.

Fish 2.0 founder Monica Jain provided us an excellent overview of the opportunities for startups and investors looking at the seafood industry, so I won’t go into too much more detail here. Suffice to say, just as agricultural tech is one of the quieter, but unmistakably huge areas of growth an innovation in the past decade, so aquaculture will be for the coming 10 to 20 years.

Power generation

Sustainable food sources is one area where social mission and long-term business gains overlap, and sustainable energy is another. The ocean provides a potential source of vast, relatively untapped power generation — harnessed correctly, waves can produce immense amounts of energy using relatively simple machines that are increasingly affordable to produce and deploy at scale, thanks to recent technological advances.

Sinn Power is one startup building its business on the back of innovation in wave-power technology. Founded in 2014, the company has secured funding from the German government and will deploy a floating wave-energy generation array capable of providing 0.75 MW of power sometime next year. Spanish startup Arrecife Energy Systems has tested its own solution in the Cantabrian sea, piloting a design which improves on existing technologies in terms of both size and efficiency, and hope to bring their solution to the commercial market for widespread adoption by 2022.

Waves aren’t the only potential source of power to be tapped in Earth’s oceans: based on estimates from the International Energy Agency, waves could generate anywhere from 8,000 to 80,000 Terawatt-hours (TWh) annually, while thermal energy sources could generate as much as 10,000 TWh and tech called ‘osmotic power’ generated by differences in salinity (concentration in salt) could provide another 2,000 TWh per year. For context, the U.S. consumed a total of around 4,000 TWh hours in 2017, so even the lower potential sources could be a significant resource.

Sea-zing the day

Oceans may not have the glamor or prestige of space, but they are still an area where a general lack of knowledge of the real risks and opportunities present have meant that startup investment and activity trails potential upside.

It’s still generally a hard tech/frontier tech space, however, which that means anyone looking to explore ventures here should go in with eyes wide open that these are hard problems to solve that require real expertise and acumen to crack, but the things that make it a challenge are also the reasons it’s under-explored. As a result rewards await those who have the right mix of solution and risk tolerance.