Technology investors should keep an eye on Bill Vass. He's making a big splash in robotics.
You may not have heard of him but he used to run a $1.4 billion unit for Sun Microsystems that dealt with federal contracts. When Oracle Corp. (Nasdaq:ORCL) later acquired Sun, Vass' work there played a major role.
Before that, Vass served as an information technology (IT) honcho at the Pentagon. He had major input into some 6,800 defense IT systems with a budget of more than $35.5 billion.
As one of the nation's most senior high-tech experts, Vass now serves as CEO of a small but well-funded startup.
It's called Liquid Robotics.
And its self-propelled water bots can travel from California to Hawaii without using a single drop of fuel.
But here's where the big payoff comes in for investors: each bot is packed with sensors that can gather a wide range of critical data about the world's oceans.
Believe it or not, that opens up a gigantic but little-known opportunity.
According to Vass, that potentially puts Liquid Robotics at the forefront of a $40 billion market.
And from what I can see, Vass is making all the right moves.
One to Keep an Eye On
In fact, Vass recently launched a new unit that will target the Pentagon for sales at a time when the Navy desperately needs cheaper sources of data.
Meanwhile, just a few weeks earlier, Liquid Robotics snared both a contract and an investment from Schlumberger Ltd. (NYSE:SLB), the oil services giant with a market cap of about $100 billion.
As I see it, that means Liquid Robotics is now on a clear path to issuing shares to the public in as little as three years.
Along the way, Vass is making quite a name for himself and his firm.
For investors that's a good thing, since it helps build the brand, keeping potential competitors at bay while adding value to any IPO down the road.
Turns out, Vass is in high demand these days.
While I was on the phone with one of his reps to arrange a chat with Vass, Liquid Robotics was juggling the details of a special about tracking great white sharks that ran on the Discovery Channel.
The TV show featured the firm's Wave Glider, the wave-powered marine robot that looks like a high-tech surfboard. The autonomous device has already set world records by covering some 13,000 nautical miles on the high seas.
His PR rep also was working out the details of an interview with Time magazine. All of this follows recent stories in both The New York Times and Forbes.
So, I'm glad to report that Vass was able to fit me in to his crowded schedule.
After all, Liquid Robotics is one of those startups you need to know about as a key player in what I call the Era of Radical Change.You see, robots do more than just basic "manual labor" in factories. No doubt, that is important. But the truth is bots will change the world in profound ways.
Some will even help us conquer the oceans–the 70% of Earth that we still know little about.
My first question to Vass was why we should care about the oceans and the role his company wants to play in the marine sector.
"I think the first thing that every investor needs to understand is that about $10 trillion a year of our global economy, in one way or another, depends on the oceans," Vass told me.
"That includes oil coming out of it or minerals or fish coming out of it or goods moving across it. And the number one thing that affects the prices of commodities today is weather. The majority of our weather is controlled by the oceans."
"Because of the economic value of the oceans, about $40.4 billion is spent annually collecting data and doing ocean operations to manage that $10 trillion of economy.
"They mostly spend that $40 billion on ships, buoys and satellites. Those are the primary ways that data is collected from the ocean today."
Better, Faster and Cheaper
But not if Liquid Robotics has anything to say about it.
See, the firm has a set of bots that are faster, better and cheaper. They could turn the old-school systems employed today upside down.
In the defense sector, Vass notes that the U.S. and other navies need to find cheaper means of conducting surveillance, monitoring and communications. His bots aid in all three.
Not only that, they could be a boon for anti-submarine warfare. The Wave Gliders run silently, meaning the enemy can't hear them even with advanced acoustic sensors.
Vass has already put Grant Palmer in charge of the defense unit. Palmer arrived with 32 years of defense tech experience. He formerly served as a senior executive at L-3 Communications Holdings Inc. (NYSE:LLL), a large defense firm focused on electronic systems.
And with the Schlumberger deal, Vass created Liquid Robotics Oil & Gas, a joint venture with the services giant to develop data systems for the oil and gas industry.
As Vass notes, the Wave Glider can run up to a year without fuel or the support of marine vessels. They can provide seismic and other data for oil exploration. And they can save lives because ships and other crews in this sector often work in dangerous locales.
Vass also says his decades in business have taught him that success in high tech depends on people. That's why he's attracted a team of all-stars to serve on his advisory board. They include:
- James Gosling, creator of the Java programming language, who also works for the firm.
- Scott McNealy, cofounder and former CEO of Sun Microsystems.
- Ed Lu, former NASA astronaut and a leader in the New Space Race.
- Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., attorney and environmentalist.
- Chris Welsh, co-founder of Virgin Oceanic (with Sir Richard Branson).
- Roger Hine, inventor of the Wave Glider who serves as the firm's CTO. Just yesterday (Aug. 28), the World Economic Forum named Hine one of its Technology Pioneers for 2013.
Let me close by noting that Liquid Robotics is one of the reasons I remain so upbeat about the future of America.
Despite our current challenges, we still have a deep roster of entrepreneurs.
And they are bursting with energy and ideas–the kind that will make savvy investors quite rich.
One of them could be Liquid Robotics. With a new twist on a $40 billion market they just might end up with an ocean full of contracts.
This is one company to keep an eye on.
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About the Author
Michael A. Robinson is a 36-year Silicon Valley veteran and one of the top technology financial analysts working today. That's because, as a consultant, senior adviser, and board member for Silicon Valley venture capital firms, Michael enjoys privileged access to pioneering CEOs, scientists, and high-profile players. And he brings this entire world of Silicon Valley "insiders" right to you...
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