The company, which was founded in Boston by roboticist Sampriti Bhattacharyya, could be a high-profile addition to the state’s innovation ecosystem, not to mention its marine-related industries. But its future in the state is still far from certain.
For now, the company has rented an office in TechPlace in Brunswick and by the end of the month should have five employees in Maine, Bhattacharyya, who still lives in Boston, told Maine Startups Insider. She has hired Jamieson Webking, who formerly worked at Zootility Tools, to run the local operations.
Bhattacharyya founded Hydroswarm in 2015 while a PhD student at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology. While people are accustomed to think about drones being in the sky, her football-sized robots use propulsion to live under the water, where they’re capable of autonomy and are even able to collaborate with other drones to accomplish whatever tasks they may be programmed to complete (hence “swarm” in the company’s title). Here’s an early video of the prototype.
She was developing an underwater drone specifically for use in nuclear-reactor inspection when she was inspired to consider her technology’s vast range of other applications by the failure to find the Malaysia Airlines plane that was believed to have crashed in the southern Indian Ocean. A “swarm” of autonomous underwater robots carrying an array of sensors could in theory map vast sections of the ocean floor in a much more efficient manner than currently possible.
Beyond ocean exploration, the drones could be used in any number of applications, including in the aquaculture and other marine-related industries, the oil-and-gas industry, and the defense industry. The market for underwater drones is predicted to reach $4.8 billion by 2019, according to this 2015 report from Sophic Capital.
Given the potential, her technology has garnered a large amount of attention. Bhattacharyya was invited to present at TechCrunch’s 2015 Disrupt conference in San Francisco and last year won MassChallenge in Boston and was named to the Forbes 30 Under 30 list. She’s been approached by some of the top venture capital firms and investors, and hasn’t had problems raising capital.
Having graduated with her PhD in mechanical engineering last summer, Bhattacharyya has since been working on Hydroswarm full-time and looking to forge the relationships that will enable her technology to move from the lab to the oceans to demonstrate their real-world applications.
Bhattacharyya, who’s originally from India, first came to Maine during the summer of 2016 to be a keynote speaker at Maine Startup & Create Week (here’s a video of that keynote interview). The state and its local startup community impressed her.
“For me, when I came to Maine I was incredibly moved by the community of people who are so hopeful to innovate and work together to do something new and help the economy,” she said.
The community, coupled with the state’s marine-related infrastructure and manufacturing legacy, prompted her to begin discussions with groups in Maine and to eventually renting the space in Brunswick and hiring some of her first employees.
But whether Hydroswarm’s presence in Maine grows is still an open questions. The company’s headquarters is still in Boston, and also has a small presence on the west coast. While Bhattacharyya is “inclined” to grow operations in Maine and maybe even move the headquarters here, she’s still considering her options. One concern that would need to be addressed is concern among existing investors about basing the company outside the typical nexuses of startup activity and talent, such as Silicon Valley.
One factor that will influence her decision is the amount of support she’s able to find within the state.
“We are still waiting on a few decisions from organizations in Maine,” Bhattacharyya said. “We see a lot of potential in Maine—an amazing coastline, an incredible community of people to work with, and a marine-based economy perfect for our business. But we need to ensure we can get the sort of support system, investment, and commitment to pre-revenue disruptive startups we need to be based in Maine. The state is seeking high impact startups, but it’s a big decision to choose Maine over the West Coast if we cannot find the right investment partners locally here.”
She believes local support from the community will be important for her business to succeed, and she wants to be located in a place where that foundation exists.
“If you want cool things to happen, you need to join hands to make it happen,” she said.