Scott Beatty’s ocean eyes
How the CEO of MarineLabs is using data to tackle marine mobility and climate change.
Scott Beatty didn’t plan on leading a marine data tech startup when he grew up. But in hindsight, his childhood did have all the raw ingredients that, if combined properly, might turn him into an ocean-conscious technologist.
It’s not just that he grew up in Qualicum Beach, a quaint town of sub-10,000 residents along the Strait of Georgia on Vancouver Island's northeastern coast. It’s also not the fact that he attended Kwalikum Secondary School, a mere 10-minute walk from the village’s sandy shores. Sure, those were contributing factors. But Beatty’s destiny was driven by internal reasons just as much as external ones, he’ll tell you. Part of who he is today was inside of him since day one.
From birth, Beatty was a tinkerer. “I was that kid that took everything apart and broke things and then tried to fix them,” he says. “I designed stuff, and for school projects I went overboard and built crazy things.” And by 13, he was on his way to becoming an engineer’s engineer, even if he didn’t quite know what that was yet.
Fast forward 20 years, and Beatty is still connected to the Earth’s water. He’s the founder and chief executive of Victoria-based MarineLabs, a company that captures ocean data and helps organizations like BC Ferries and the US Department of Energy quantify marine hazards and optimize decision-making. With its subscription service – called CoastAware – MarineLabs is on the cusp of $1 million in annual recurring revenue, which suggests recent coverage in National Geographic and Smithsonian Magazine is warranted. It also means that its mission to “transform marine mobility” is not just a pie-in-the-sky idea. Beatty is running a real business. Metaphorically speaking, he’s captain of a clipper (translation: a fast-sailing ship).
Not all local ocean tech companies have fared this well, Beatty tells Victoria Tech Journal. And he would know. The research that helped him cruise through an M.A.Sc and Ph.D is what brought him to what you might call a nautical dead end – or put plainly: an idea that didn’t work. The concept? Wave energy: “kind of like wind energy, but it's for waves.”
Beatty’s ocean energy adventure began at the end of his undergraduate degree, when a presentation by Nigel Protter, then-president of a company called Sieber Energy, got Beatty interested in the subject. And like most young and ambitious men, Beatty thought he could do what Protter was trying to do, but better. “I was a young undergrad in mechanical engineering thinking, ‘This guy's doing it all wrong; I can totally help them build this thing,” Beatty recalls.
In fact, Beatty ended up proving that the specific innovation they were working on didn’t actually work. “By the end of it, I wasn't convinced that the tech, or that particular concept, was going to be the way forward,” he explains. “It was only after I finished my Ph.D that I kind of realized that a new and more interesting opportunity is in ocean data, rather than ocean energy, for me and for my interests.”
What made data a compelling area to focus on was the ease with which it could be collected. “In ocean energy, you have to kind of collect $10 million of capital to try and build a prototype to prove an idea off of a coastline. But with ocean data, there's an amazing, interesting market for it,” Beatty outlines. “You can spend maybe $2,000 and get a prototype in the water.”
After Beatty’s decade in academia and after he moved on from wave power, he found himself consulting for an organization called Cascadia Coast Research. It was there that he happened upon the immediate use-case for his ideas around lightweight – and low-cost – concepts for data collection. He was working with coastal engineers. “These are people that have to design breakwaters and harbours and ports, and they have to protect marinas. They need to know wind and wave information, and they were doing that with desktop studies, like computer models, but they were wrong. They were just straight-up wrong. But they were basically being used to design harbours and ports.”
They had to measure the accuracy of the models, and Beatty says the only way to solve this problem initially was to spend $100,000 to deploy heavy equipment. He scoffed at the option. “I was like, ‘Wait a second, there’s got to be another way,’” he recalls. “Let's build something that's small, easy to deploy, [gets] lots more data. Let's take a more modern approach to these things… It was obvious there was an opportunity.” Thus, the idea for MarineLabs was born.
Five years after its official founding, the company has bootstrapped itself to a dozen employees. But there are other key numbers Beatty has on his radar, including what he refers to as fleet size. MarineLabs has units on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, below Alaska near Prince Rupert, and near San Diego. Collectively, there are 25 devices deployed right now, and the short-term goal is to double that. Long-term, Beatty is targeting thousands. It sounds ambitious until Beatty provides an explanation.
“Here's a reference for you,” he begins. “Canada’s government operates 25 to 35 government-funded data buoys. 25 locations for how much coastline Canada has – it's just incredible. But Canada also has 10,000 marker buoys that are aids to navigation.”
Think about those yellow, red, and green buoys that mark channels, coastlines and rocks so that ships don’t hit them. “We think that all of those things should be real-time data sites. And so that's really the way we've built our technology – a really simple bolt-on deployment to those navigational aids.”
Beatty may be a small-town boy, but he’s never been one to think that way. In fact, he doesn’t see MarineLabs as just a marine mobility business. He believes he works at a cleantech firm. “We consider ourselves a climate adaptation technology,” he shares.
He notes that ships are getting bigger, and there are more of them. But what hasn’t changed are port sizes. And at the same time, everybody in the business of moving people and goods in the water is dealing with the impacts of climate change, including weather and wind volatility and sea-level rise. He says the answer to dealing with that is better data to help with navigation. Since we’re going to experience the effects of climate for centuries, he argues, “we need to adapt to it effectively.” It’s why the second half of MarineLabs’ official mission is to “enhance the climate resilience of coastlines.”
It’s an ambitious vision – kind of like electricity powered by waves – which will not be so easy to realize. But when Beatty is asked why MarineLabs won’t end up like one of the unsuccessful ocean energy firms from his past, he doesn’t hesitate in his response. “We have a real business model. We have customers like ports and pilots who love the data,” he says assuredly, “and they're telling their colleagues about it all over the world.”