When aluminum is oxidized by water, it has the highest energy content per unit volume of any metal fuel. But to date, the energy contained in aluminum has been virtually impossible to harness. Today, Open Water Power is developing a technology to tap into it.
Open Water Power is commercializing a new kind of fuel cell for underwater power generation. Their innovative aluminum-water fuel cell platform can store 10 times as much energy as conventional lithium-ion batteries and withstand practically any physical or electrical abuse, rendering it safer and more scalable than existing alternatives for underwater applications. I sat down recently with Open Water co-founder & CEO, Tom Milnes, to learn what drives him and his company to disrupt the underwater power generation and storage market.
Q. Why do you do what you do?
A. I like combining science and business. The underlying chemistry that makes this aluminum water fuel cell possible is fascinating and elegant. The concept is intellectually stimulating from a scientific perspective, and there is also large demand from a market perspective for an underwater power option that offers what our technology does. I like being able to tackle technical and business opportunities simultaneously.
Q. How did your company start?
A. The technology was developed as a joint project between MIT and Lincoln Lab during a class I was the TA for. After the class was completed, our sponsors in the government encouraged us to spin the technology out and commercialize it.
Q. What is the top priority for your company development right now?
A. Fundraising. But when isn’t it time to fundraise? So far we have been funded through government research grants, which we are exploring in addition to some other avenues, such as VCs and joint ventures. On a day to day basis, it involves making and maintaining company contacts in the Department of Defense and in the oil and natural gas markets. We recently brought on the former COO of Bluefin Robotics as a Senior Advisor, who has a huge network we’ve been able to leverage. I’ve also been traveling to Washington, D.C., Tampa, and Houston to fundraise, since those are where many of our potential customers are located and operate.
Q. What are your aspirations for Open Water Power?
A. That our technology becomes the eminent power source for underwater operations of all kinds.
Q. What motivates you?
A. I really enjoy combining business skills and science processes. The market opportunity for this technology and the amount of good we can do for national defense and for the industries we are talking about is quite impactful, and that is incredibly exciting.
Q. How do you work?
A. I’m a silence person when it comes to working – silence, with earplugs. I have a home office and do a lot of work from home even at off hours. At Open Water Power, we value flexibility in working hours because everyone is very self motivated, and tends to perform their best when they determine when and how they work.
Q. What does a typical day look like at Open Water?
A. Right now, a typical day for me involves lots of emails and conference calls. A day in the lab looks like building new prototypes and testing them for efficiency and reliability under various conditions.
Q. How does startup life differ from your previous work or studies?
A. It is extraordinarily open-ended, which can be exciting and also daunting. In a big company, you have a set group of responsibilities, you’re told what they are and you work on them. In start ups, you have to decide what your responsibilities are and then do them, and you have to do a LOT more of them. One of the more challenging and unique aspects of startup life is adjudicating competing priorities on your own because there is no one to tell you what’s important or what to do, and there is always way more to do than can actually get done that day.
Q. What brought you to Greentown Labs?
A. We were looking for lab space after spinning out of MIT. I knew some people from old Greentown, which sounded like an interesting fit. I came and saw the build-out of the Somerville facility and it was a perfect combination of office/lab space. I liked the community aspect, the network, and that the mission is really sound. The sheer volume of resources here: internet, printers, mail, bills…there is so much Greentown does to allow startups to focus on building their companies, which is a huge value proposition to an entrepreneur.
Q. What was something that surprised you about Greentown?
A. Initially, I was worried about the open layout and shared workspace creating a noise problem for me, but I have found the co-working space to be surprisingly comfortable and it’s been nice to have a lot of people around. My last company (essentially a 2-man start-up up through our acquisition) was located in a nearly-unoccupied office building on the outskirts of Cambridge and it was easy to feel isolated there at times. Greentown is a great change from that.
Q. What is the most valuable resource you have used or accessed at Greentown?
A. I would have to say the most valuable resource is the network. You can reach out to anyone in the community and they’re willing to help make introductions, share tools or give their insight on pretty much anything.
Q. What advice would you give another hardware entrepreneur?
A. You need really good space. Things will cost a lot more than you expect them to, especially compared to software startups, and it’s important to plan for that accordingly.
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