Alison Lee Satake
Scientists win multimillion dollar contract

Cape & Plymouth Business
Photos courtesy of Hydroid

Radio story produced for NPR affiliate, WCAI


Driven by the need to earn enough money to put their children through college, six scientists at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute developed an underwater robot and brought it to market.

“You have a bunch of people doing research, working really hard. You don’t get paid a lot to do the kind of work we were doing. So we started the company,” says Chris von Alt, president of Hydroid, the company that designs and builds autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) in Pocasset.

This year, the company got the green light to begin filling an order for the U.S. Navy’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command with a contract ceiling of $75 million. The manufacturing will take about a year and will be conducted entirely in Massachusetts.

It’s been a two-year process to get to this stage for the company, which has about 100 employees. Hydroid bid for the contract, beating out some big defense contractors.

“To have won that contract as a small business, setting up after 10 years of operation, is a significant step forward for Hydroid. It puts us in the league of being someone who can compete at the table with the major defense contractors,” von Alt says.

Hydroid then spent about a year developing prototypes for the Navy to test before getting the go-ahead to begin production in February. The Navy currently is using one of the prototypes Hydroid developed, von Alt says.

Not  only  is  this  Hydroid’s  first  contract with the U.S. Navy’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command, but it has the potential to become a multi-year contract with up to 15 more system orders, von Alt says

How it works

The Navy’s  order  includes  three  Remote Environmental  Monitoring  Units  (REMUS) 600s, which are over 15 feet long, about 1 foot in diameter and weigh about 560 pounds each. The unmanned vehicle can travel through water at about 4 knots and descend to a depth of about 1,800 feet. It can be used for mine warfare, mapping and harbor security and scientific sampling.

“It was designed to get people out of harm’s way. It was designed to save lives and to get people out of the minefield,” von Alt says.

The unmanned vehicle  is  equipped  with GPS, Wi-Fi and sonar. It can be customized to include a video camera. The unit connects through software to a computer in order to plan and program a mission, analyze data and monitor the system. The system the Navy has ordered also includes a launch and recovery system (LARS), a LARS flat rack, a mission van, maintenance van and vehicle support equipment.

Early years

Von  Alt  was  one  of  the  six  engineers who began working on this at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. He arrived in 1985 to work on some of the early excavations of the Titanic, capturing some of the first images of the grand staircase of the lost ship with an underwater robot.

In 1991, he and his colleagues began developing an autonomous underwater vehicle. The scientists approached other companies, such as Raytheon in Sippican, to license their technology. But eventually they chose to form their own company. After working at WHOI for about 20 years, von Alt left to run Hydroid.

“I just thought this would be a really exciting thing to do,” he says. Since 2001, the company has sold about 250 AUVs worldwide.

Innovative edge

Hydroid maintains its strong relationship with current WHOI scientists and engineers, contracting them to conduct research and development for the company. The close proximity to the research institute keeps Hydroid on Cape Cod.

“When you’re facing customer demands and looking at getting things done and meeting contractual obligations, often you don’t stop and consider things the way you ought to, to make sure you’re looking far enough down the road [and] to make sure you stay in a competitive position,” von Alt says.

That’s why  he  draws  upon  the  resources at WHOI’s Applied Ocean Physics and Engineering department.

“Woods Hole is very much a place where people have the opportunity to think long term. It’s a different way of thinking. You need that component in business,” he says.

He looks to Apple as a model for balancing the drive to meet current demand while innovating for the future.

“It’s very important to have a component of your work that’s focused on next generation systems to stay ahead so you’re competitive,” he says.

Its products and model caught the eye of one of its  competitors,  Norwegian  company Kongsberg Maritime. In 2008, it bought Hydroid, but kept von Alt as president. The other co-founders also remain active with the company. Since the acquisition, Hydroid has been able to grow considerably.

“[Kongsberg] brings a lot of economic stability. They have a lot of resources,” von Alt says. A large part of Hydroid’s  business comes from overseas. “We export and sell overseas to other naval forces,” he says.

Hydroid recently broke ground on a new 40,000-square-foot facility that will be outfitted with a test pool and pressure chamber. They plan to open in January 2014, von Alt says. But he already knows that they have outgrown the space. So far this year, they have hired about 30 new staff. He’s on the lookout for more talent in the realm of engineers with master’s degrees and PhDs. But it’s a challenge to recruit new talent and new companies to the Cape.

“A lot of what draws people here is the love of nature and the ocean. So the stewardship of the area and protecting it is quite real, because otherwise what draws people here will go away,” he says. He grew up on Long Island Sound and knows how unchecked industry can destroy the natural environment.

To new and existing business owners, he says that you can be a good steward for the environment and be pro-business.

“It’s not easy, but most things that are worth something aren’t easy,” he says

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