The ocean is a largely untapped energy resource with renewable energy present in every wave, tide, and current. Innovators around the world are working hard every day to develop new technologies capable of harnessing marine energy. However, research, development, and testing activities require significant funding and a clear pathway for commercialization. Fortunately, there are funding programs and resources available to support this work and navigating them is much easier than navigating the deep ocean.
One example of a company that has successfully traversed these funding and assistance processes is Ocean Motion Technologies, a marine energy company that is developing technologies to use each passing wave to generate clean and sustainable electricity. As the company works to mature its technology toward commercialization, a key factor in its success has been its strategic use of various funding opportunities from the federal government and, especially, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).
The Ocean of Things, and the Era of Big Blue Data
Dr. Jack Pan, an oceanographer and data scientist based in San Diego, founded Ocean Motion Technologies in 2018 and began work on a new ocean wave energy converter technology in 2020. “Our mission is to develop and commercialize an innovative, small-scale ocean wave energy device capable of powering off-grid, low-power applications,” explained Pan.
The company envisions an interconnected network of autonomous, data-gathering devices deployed across the ocean, powered by its sub-kW wave energy technology. Ocean Motion Technologies refers to this envisioned network as the “Ocean of Things,” which will provide massive amounts of data to support and enable marine research, weather and climate monitoring, offshore aquaculture, coastal security and defense, and more. The company’s work toward the Ocean of Things is intended to spur more data gathering from one of the world’s most unexplored areas—the ocean.
Pan was inspired to start Ocean Motion Technologies after an expedition to Antarctica. “The waves of the Southern Ocean pack a punch,” said Pan, speaking of the notoriously choppy seas. Pan’s background in oceanography and data science places him at a unique crossroads between technology developer and potential end user.
With its wave energy device, Ocean Motion Technologies aims to lower the cost of powering ocean-based data-gathering devices. “The ultimate goal is to provide the necessary tools to better understand and conserve the oceans in order to empower the sustainable development of our marine environment,” Pan explained.
Technology Advancements with Funding and Technical Assistance
Ocean Motion Technologies has made significant progress toward commercialization in the last three years. For example, in 2022, the company completed an in-water test that produced power from waves as small as boat wakes, showing the versatility and environments in which its energy device could be used.
Pan credits DOE’s diverse and complementary funding and technical assistance opportunities for the company’s strides toward marketability. The company advanced its technology through:
- Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer (SBIR/STTR) Programs: The SBIR/STTR programs offer accessible grants to small businesses to support technological innovation in the private sector. Ocean Motion Technologies won four SBIR grants totaling nearly $4 million: three funded by DOE’s Water Power Technologies Office (WPTO) and one funded by the National Science Foundation. SBIR funding helped kickstart the company’s initial technology framework for its wave energy converter, as well as its efforts to explore implementation of an ocean data infrastructure.
“The SBIR projects were instrumental in helping us build our core technology, pioneering our small-scale wave energy device designed for direct installation on oceanographic data buoys that are commercially available,” Pan explained. The funding also allowed Ocean Motion Technologies to engage with potential customers and end users to ensure market fit.
- Testing Expertise and Access for Marine Energy Research (TEAMER) Program Requests for Technical Support: Sponsored by WPTO and directed by the Pacific Ocean Energy Trust, the TEAMER program provides technology developers with access to expertise and testing facilities across the country. Ocean Motion Technologies received four rounds of technical support over a two-year span, beginning with support for numerical modeling of its wave energy devices and eventually moving to laboratory-scale testing at Oregon State University.
- SBIR/STTR Phase Shift: Pan and his team also participated in DOE’s SBIR/STTR Phase Shift (formerly known as SBIR/STTR Energy I-Corps), an immersive entrepreneurial program aimed at commercializing emerging technologies and identifying potential end users. The Phase Shift program offered another opportunity to engage with potential customers and seek feedback on product development. Most importantly, according to Pan, his cohort was “designed with ocean energy companies in mind,” resulting in a more targeted learning experience for marine energy entrepreneurs.
In addition to these funding and technical assistance opportunities, Ocean Motion Technologies has benefitted from other DOE programs and initiatives. Pan served as a judge for WPTO’s Marine Energy Collegiate Competition, and through the competition network, he recruited one of the student participants, Nicholas May-Varas, who competed in 2021 and 2022 as part of the Oregon State University team and now works at the company as a research engineer. The competition challenges students to develop unique solutions to advance marine energy technologies and develop business plans and community connections related to marine energy.
By utilizing a variety of funding opportunities and other DOE programs over the past three years, Ocean Motion built confidence in its approach and demonstrated resourcefulness in bringing the company’s idea to life. “Each funding opportunity has played a specific and complementary role in this journey... Participation in SBIR and other DOE programs has provided us the chance to work closely with our pilot customers,” said Pan.
Next Step: Getting in the Water
In August 2023, Ocean Motion Technologies carried out its pilot deployment in Puget Sound, Washington. While its technology had been validated in numerous sea trials, this pilot deployment in an actual open-water environment marked a key step toward the company’s envisioned Ocean of Things.
During this deployment, the Ocean Motion Technologies team validated several key system metrics, such as the stability of the device weight, buoyancy distribution, and direct data upload to a cloud hosted by partners. The team also worked closely with manufacturer and system integrator partners to successfully transport, deploy, and recover the entire system. According to Pan, these collaborations are crucial building blocks toward future commercial deployments.
Along its road to commercialization, Ocean Motion Technologies leveraged a wide variety of funding and technical assistance programs to accelerate its technology. As the world seeks sustainable clean energy solutions, the company is demonstrating the potential of the ocean and the critical role of DOE support in realizing its goals.
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