Enter a competition, get into a new market

You can see the potential of entering a new market but you don’t have the funds or know quite how to go about it. Here’s one way: enter a competition.

Autonomous Surface Vehicles (ASV) has been building its business in unmanned marine systems for defence and oil and gas customers since 2010.

But it wasn’t until it entered a Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI) competition run by the National Oceanography Centre and supported by Innovate UK that it found a way to move into the market for oceanographic research.

The competition

SBRI connects public sector challenges with innovative ideas from industry. In September 2012, the National Oceanography Centre (NOC)* used it to launch a competition to find long-endurance marine unmanned surface vehicles (LEMUSV) which could use both existing and new sensor technology to gather data from the oceans for several months at a time.

The vehicles also had to be capable of covering up to 100 nautical miles at a time.

ASV’s initial design for the competition got them £50,000 funding to test its feasibility.

The result was the concept for the C-Enduro, a rugged self-righting vehicle that uses solar panels, a wind generator and a lightweight diesel generator as its energy sources to keep the vessel at sea for three months at a time.

This got them to the second phase of the competition where ASV was awarded £390,000 in early 2013 to build a prototype.

The new product

ASV worked with Newcastle-based Hyperdrive and Cranfield University to build the vehicle and officially launched the C-Enduro in March 2014.

By June it had two orders, one from NOC and another from Heriot-Watt University, and the company now aims to sell five or six a year.

The NOC vehicle is due for delivery in September 2014 and is scheduled to take part in a major science activity in the autumn.

“It’s not a mass market product, but we’re seeing a lot of interest from organisations that do oceanographic research both in the UK and overseas. We expect to generate £1m-2m of extra revenues over the next two years as a result,” says Dan Hook, managing director of ASV.

The benefits

“It looks like there could be interest in the other sectors we operate in as well so it’s a double benefit,” he adds.

That’s not the only bonus to come out of the project. Their work has led to cross-fertilisation with other parts of ASV’s business.

ASV has also been awarded a further grant to participate in a feasibility study on an autonomous rescue vehicle that could be installed on commercial vessels or oil rigs to automatically launch when someone falls into the water.

“The company has grown rapidly, from five to 40 people in just over three years, but we wouldn’t have moved into oceanography without the SBRI competition. We could see the opportunities but we didn’t have the funds or direction to get into it,” says Hook.

SBRI project funding is attractive at 100 per cent – but it’s not the only benefit.

“The full funding is great but the experience is worth much more than that,” comments Hook. “The relationships we’ve built and the publicity we’ve received have given us a much higher profile and made people far more aware of who we are and what we do.

“Focusing on a specific challenge like this gave us real direction and a way into a market we were keen to enter. It’s a really good process and I’d recommend it to anyone,” Hook concludes.

This is an abbreviated version of a longer article about ASV. Learn more about how Innovate UK can provide support and funding to help businesses develop new products and services.