San Diego’s Cottage Industry of Marine Technology Innovation

Long before San Diego was known as a hub of telecommunications innovation or for its proliferation of biotech companies, it was a leading center for the development of deep underwater technologies.

During the 1960s and ’70s, scientists from the U.S. Navy laboratories on Point Loma and UCSD’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography founded numerous startups with technologies derived from underwater sensors, acoustics, and signal processing techniques that had been developed for the Navy’s cat-and-mouse games with Soviet submarines. Robotic technology that the Navy had developed to recover a hydrogen bomb from the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea in 1966 led almost directly to the formation of Hydroproducts and Ametek Straza, two companies that made deep ocean ROVs (Remotely Operated Vehicles) in San Diego during the 1970s. Hydroproducts and Ametek Straza faded from San Diego, however, after they were acquired by bigger companies that wanted to introduce ROVs to the offshore oil and gas industry.

It might not be apparent on the surface, but much of that expertise in subsea technologies remains in San Diego today, according to Leonard Pool, who founded Sidus Solutions in 2000 to develop deep underwater pan-and-tilt camera systems and related ROV positioning equipment. Pool, who is moderating a panel discussion today on “marine technology as an important growth industry” for San Diego, says close to 150 companies continue to ply their trade here.

Alvin Diving off California

Alvin Diving off California

“When the U.S. Navy decided that San Diego was going to be a port for submarines, all these companies sprang up,” Pool tells me. “We do get looked at as a cottage industry.” He says these companies have thrived, despite a post-Cold War decline in defense funding for new submarine-hunting technologies. One likely reason, Pool says, is that the “oil and gas community continues to look at San Diego as a hub for subsea technology development.”

Pool’s panel discussion is part of “The Maritime Collaboration Summit,” a two-day conference organized by the Maritime Alliance, a San Diego non-profit industry group, aboard the tourism ship Inspiration Hornblower. The summit, which ends today, is intended to increase awareness of San Diego’s importance as a hub for technology innovation, and to encourage collaboration between the scientific community and commercial maritime innovators, according to Michael B. Jones, president of the Maritime Alliance.

“Right now, the maritime community in San Diego is very fragmented with little visibility or public understanding of its importance,” says Jones, who also heads The Security Network, a related industry group focused strictly on defense and homeland security technologies.

Pool tells me he self-funded Sidus Solutions, and his key customers are typically specialized companies that drill exploratory holes as well as the main holes for offshore platforms. “In order to monitor their equipment, they need cameras to watch the subsea operations,” Pool says. Sidus Solutions also developed positioning technology that orients an ROV so it remains oriented with its cameras pointing at a target, and the company has patented some of its technology innovations. (Sidus also is currently seeking venture capital to expand its operations, Pool says.)

Pool also identified some other subsea technologies that will likely be discussed at the conference:

—Doppler acoustics systems developed in San Diego by SonTek are used to measure river and ocean currents as well as the speed and relative position of underwater robots. Pool says SonTek, part of Ohio-based YSI, also has developed deep-ocean sensors that measure a variety of environmental conditions, from water temperature and salinity to available light and how much biomatter is floating in the water.

Nereus Pharmaceuticals is a San Diego-based biotech that has been identifying and developing new drug candidates derived from marine microbes. Nereus describes its two anti-cancer drug candidates as “potentially best-in-class small molecules.” One drug candidate, which was derived from a marine fungus, disrupts the formation of tumor blood vessels and is being evaluated in a Phase 2 clinical trial for non-small cell lung carcinoma. Another drug derived from marine bacteria is being evaluated in multiple Phase 1 trials for multiple myeloma, solid tumors, lymphomas and leukemias.

—A variety of startup companies throughout the U.S., U.K., and Canada have been working on renewable energy innovations that can reliably and economically generate electricity from ocean waves. In Vancouver, BC, SyncWave Systems is developing what it calls the SyncWave Power Resonator, a 98-foot-long buoy designed to generate about 25 kilowatts as it bobs up and down among coastal waves. The company is planning a field demonstration next year off the west coast of Vancouver Island.


Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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