According to Aquaai's CEO, Liane Thompson and her husband, Simeon Pieterkosky, Chief Visionary Officer, robotic fish are going to save our seas. What started out as a promise to his daughter grew into a company that creates aquatic platforms designed to beautify and clean waterways. Their Aquaai (Aquaai + AI) lab sits in the Santa Cruz Mountains overlooking Monterey Bay, an ideal location for a marine robotic company dedicated to saving the seas.
When Liane heard about an inventor who had built two-meter tall humanoid robots all by himself she had decided to meet the impassioned South African from Cape Town. In her previous life, she was a former journalist and executive producer with The New York Times, and had met a lot of Hi-Tech entrepreneurs while working in Israel.
Aquaai recently returned from the aquaculture trials in Norway at Kvarøy Fiskeoppdrett AS, Norway. The sustainable salmon farm supplies salmon to Whole Foods and about eight percent of the salmon import to the US. Kvarøy are also known to be leaders in adopting aquaculture technology and they want to be the first with our fishlike drone, pre-ordering a handful of platforms. Read on to learn more about how Simeon and Liane are going to save our seas.
1. What does a former journalist and executive producer from The New York Times think about robotic fish saving our seas?
Having covered some pretty awful events in my lifetime, I think being a founder in a robotic fish company aimed at Saving the Seas, is a wonderful second career. While robotics is super exciting now, bio-mimicry in robotics is the tip of the excitement iceberg. And using such innovative technology for positive social and environmental impact is especially rewarding.
2. When did you first meet Simeon (Pieterkosky), builder of two-meter-tall humanoid robots and the robotic fish?
We first met in Israel in 2010. I had heard of him and his inventions. Initially, we connected on Facebook and then we met face to face. The rest is, as they say…history.
3. You wrote that Simeon was an impassioned South African from Cape Town, who was inspired by his then 8-year-old daughter, to save the seas. How will this new drone technology save the seas?
When Simeon's daughter came to him, he already had been studying for years the effects of climate change. He knew only systems that could withstand rougher seas from superstorms would be viable in the future. Our low maintenance, flexible platform, is reliable in such conditions. As for Saving the Seas, we gather data, which our customers use to improve environmental sustainability.
In the case of aquaculture, we just completed successfully our trials in Norway at the sustainable salmon farm Kvarøy Fiskeoppdrett, AS. Our Nammu (named after the goddess of the sea) fish-bot immersed with the live salmon and gathered data as she swam in the pens. Providing real-time data helps the farm improve feeding practices, and having the ability to watch fish behavior up close offers the potential to ensure overall better health of the stock, which in turn is good for the marine environment.
4. You were named one of the 17 US Blue Tech Companies to Watch in 2017, chosen for innovative ocean technologies and export potential, which may help increase US exports and create jobs. What types of jobs, and how many new jobs might be expected?
Knowing we needed to hire people with considerable ocean knowledge, we moved from Silicon Valley to San Diego to grow Aquaai. San Diego is a major Blue Tech hub, there's a lot of talent coming from UCSD, Scripps and the Navy, and thanks to entities like The Maritime Alliance, and we've met some wonderful people involved in the Ocean Economy here. However, our initial target market is aquaculture, as you know, and unfortunately, the US still lags behind the rest of the world when it comes to recognizing the potential of that industry. In fact, most of the interest we've received - be that customer or investment – comes from abroad. Our first customers are out of Norway, major producers of salmon, so we may open an Aquaai office there in the coming months.
5. It's no secret that our world is on an unsustainable path. American ecologist, biologist and science writer, Jared Diamond's book: “Collapse: how societies choose to fail or succeed," offers Easter Island as a chilling example of where our planet is headed, going as far as to say that “Easter Island is Earth Writ Small." Do you agree with Diamond's assessment?
Yes, overpopulation is an issue but consumerism, in particular, is what I think is threatening our very existence. The constant buy buy buy is a waste waste waste. I've stopped always buying new. My way is to try to buy used or refurbished first, be they clothes, computers or such. Of course having a startup helps support this mindset. But yes, I believe we as a society must put the brakes on and stop this over consumption, this obsession with buying.
6. How long did creating the eco-friendly bio-inspired fish-like drone take?
My partner Simeon studied fish movement for a couple of years before he began building his first fish. We founded Aquaai in August of 2014 and our first purchase was a 3D printer. I always say we have two 3D printers going in the lab at any given moment. We've built four prototypes, improving each time. Simeon has gotten really fast and can now build one in about 10 days.
7. Aquaai recently returned from the aquaculture trials in Norway. How did that go? Did this lead to new clients, such as Kvaroy?
The trials were very successful. Kvarøy Fiskeoppdrett AS is a wonderful fish farm, leading the way in sustainable aquaculture. The company is family ran and the brothers all share an absolute love for the ocean. We were very fortunate to pilot with them. I actually saw a documentary on Frontline – The Fish on My Plate – where they were featured and I reached out, cold emailed. Once they saw our fish robot, they were like, “this is the coolest thing we've seen" and from then forward the relationship grew to a partnership. It was great to finally meet in Norway and throw our Nammu in their pens. And once she swam and the salmon accepted her, yes they ordered a handful of platforms. We've just launched our next raise; our seed round so we can deliver. Plus, we plan to return to Norway to hold industry demos in the spring.
8. How widespread do you and Simeon expect this new technology to impact worldwide sustainability?
We can become a global monitoring system by swimming in many industries in multiple locations gathering data. If you look at air drones, which are everywhere now, image 10 years ago there were only a few. The same for water drones, in 10 years there will be many.
Mother Nature got it right, so we believe that our platform will swim in many industries from disaster relief, coastal flooding where we can maneuver around debris and collect environmental and visual data, scientific research- we've been asked to make a grouper fish by someone from Smithsonian and a shark for shark conservationists in South Africa.
Ports, as well as the oil and gas industry, have approached us and we are talking to coral reef conservationists and the company Coral Vita that is building coral reefs. Our platforms fit within various industries ideal from a cost point, functionality and maintenance perspective. The data is valuable not only for the customer, but for scientific research globally and it perhaps one day as an ocean data blockchain.
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