By Sonam Jain
Pan graduated in 2013 from UC Irvine with a bachelor’s degree in Earth Environmental Sciences. Soon after, he obtained his Master’s and Ph.D. from The Scripps Institution of Oceanography in Polar Oceanography – a field which has intrigued him since he was 10 years old. Part of his dissertation work at Scripps required him to perform maintenance and routine service work in the field. His extreme sea sickness caused by manually switching solar panel batteries in the sea urged him to research alternative methods to convert wave energy to electricity. Many months and phone calls later, Pan assembled a team and launched Ocean Motion Technologies (OMT).
We connected with Pan to further discuss his journey as an entrepreneur among the tides in the San Diego tech ecosystem.
Year Founded: 2018
The team consists of professional marine engineers, oceanographers, and data scientists who “understand the market as both vendors and consumers.”
Headcount: 5, including the startup’s Advisory Council and the Board of Directors
Headquarters: San Diego, California
Technology: Ocean Motion Tech’s revolutionary technology converts the power of the ocean into usable energy. The product, Adaptive Point Attenuator (APA), is a small scale ocean powered device designed for lower power applications at sea: oceanographic observations, maritime applications, offshore agricultural signals, as well as post and coastal security. It functions as a “plug-n-play independent power unit that can be installed on most oceanographic buoys.” Differentiating Ocean Motion Tech from other similar technologies, the startup’s product is the world’s first commercial ocean wave energy converter controlled by Artificial Intelligence. Its unique layout designed for ocean observing needs significantly lower maintenance costs, expanding the potential customer base.
The startup recently announced an AI Initiative to support open source innovation in machine learning in robotics, reinforcement learning, distributed training and sequence modeling. Projects support cross-industry, multi-disciplinary research that have applications in BlueTech.
“We plan to blaze a new path to sustainable, scalable and more efficient marine hydrokinetic energy by focusing on small-scale applications. The bluetech sector needs commercially successful products in small-scale energy to fuel the research and development needed to discover the generation methods and supporting technologies that will unlock scalable wave energy production,” Pan said.
Market Potential: The rampant growth of the wave energy market is greatly contingent on the increasing adoption of renewable energy, with the market projected to reach $107 million by 2025 from an estimated market size of $44 million in 2020,” according to the Globe Newswire.
“There is great market potential with APA,” Pan said. “Currently we are tackling data buoy, offshore agriculture, and the defense sector as their primary means of growth. While the offshore agriculture market is one of the largest in the industry, it remains the least developed in the states, in that it requires small scale power for monitoring purposes. The data buoy market, on the other hand, is rapidly growing at a rate of 90 percent each year.”
“Incumbent power supplies for small-scale applications at sea perform suboptimally. Their routine maintenance cost is several orders of magnitude larger than the initial unit costs,” he added. These challenges severely limit advances in ocean sciences, defense and security monitoring, and offshore aquaculture. Ocean wave energy is a natural choice for these use cases, but most wave energy devices are not designed for small-scale applications, and they can only function within a narrow range of sea states.
Inspiration: Panh had an affinity for science at a young age. In middle school, he spent his time watching National Geographic documentaries about polar oceanography and transitioned into further specialized topics as he approached high school. Through his years of consistent devotion to the intricacies of the field, he learned of the inaccuracies preventing better science. Those inaccuracies were what kick started his journey in understanding and developing ocean technology.
Challenges: Initially, Pan struggled with balancing his responsibilities as a grad student and maintaining the company. Unfortunately, once he overcame that hurdle, the COVID-19 pandemic struck and placed a temporary hold in product development and research. For example, the team had originally planned to conduct several tank tests in the ocean, but were unable to. Despite minor setbacks, the team adapted and built their own wave generator, testing the tanks in the CTO’s pool and building an apparatus to measure the waves. Since the majority of the team was already remote, the pandemic did not severely impact the progress of the company. In fact, Pan shared that productivity rates actually increased and expenses decreased as a result.
Funding: Like most startups, Pan bootstrapped most of the finances to get the company on its feet. After building a rudimentary system, OMT received funding from several non-diluted public research grants to support R&D work. In addition to grants, Pan mentioned his involvement with UC San Diego pitch competitions, Venture Well, and the Eastman Foundation to acquire sufficient funds.
Mentors: Pan credits everyone in the industry who has helped him better understand the ecosystem. “Anyone who is willing to offer unique perspectives about their personal growth, struggles, lessons learned, and overall understanding of the tech industry serves as not only a mentor, but also an inspiration,” he said.
On the Horizon: Within the next year, Pan plans to release and pilot test a minimum viable product with his startup’s commercial partner, who will be integrating the product into their line. Additionally, he hopes to develop more commercial partners in the small scale sea market. Three-to-four years down the line, he will consider scaling the current technology up by either selling more units in the market or designing a larger product for more substantial applications.
San Diego Tech Ecosystem: Pan loves the San Diego tech scene, describing it as a “vibrant ecosystem with cross disciplinary sectors.” As someone who has lived in San Diego for years, he appreciates how it’s one of the few places in the United States with a prominent presence of the blue tech industry. San Diego’s renowned cleantech industry has provided him with an intersection between relevant industries, and as a result “the opportunity to be seamlessly integrated into a broader ecosystem.”
Tacos: SpitFire Tacos in La Jolla
Editor’s Note: TritonTech is an original series on UC San Diego created by Fresh Brewed Tech that showcases the innovative ideas born in the halls of academia that are making a great impact on our ecosystem and beyond.