Nic Radford – Houston Mechatronics, Inc.



>> 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.

One Comment

  1. Russ Capper said:

    Nic's comment about what's more challenging, robots in space or robots in the ocean is pretty revealing…..

    June 28, 2019
    Reply

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