“People talk a lot about venture capital, but they won’t take this kind of risk. They’ll take a business risk, but rarely a technology risk. Venture investing is all about return, and investors don’t like risk, despite the fact they talk about it.”
While the military supports research, he says, it’s slower to acquire the new products it helped bring to life. But it means the products are viable for civilian use, which is much of what Sullivan does with the company now – turning dual-use technology into civilian products.
Take Middle Street. Somewhere along that corridor of ruts and straightaways is an experiment Oceanit has been conducting for a year and a half. Embedded Oceanit nanotechnology has turned the concrete surface into super-hard nanite that also measures the impact as heavy trucks rumble over it.
“A lot of potholes come from heavy trucks,” Sullivan explains, and the “weigh-in-motion” ability of Oceanit’s concrete will detect their impact.
He says it will enable Department of Transportation officials to better understand where and why potholes are made, and how better to fix them.
Senior scientist Jacob Pollock talks to Patrick Sullivan in the Nano-Bio Lab at Oceanit’s headquarters on Fort Street Mall in downtown Honolulu. Photo by Aaron K. Yoshino
Co-workers admit there’s something both indefinable yet predictable about Sullivan. Indefinable, because it’s impossible to fathom what his engineer’s mind will envision next. And predictable because there absolutely WILL be something he’ll envision next.
That propensity began early for Sullivan. In a family with little money, he applied the innovative entrepreneurial techniques he’d mastered in childhood to pay for his undergraduate degree in engineering from the University of Colorado, Boulder. Tuition came from the landscaping company he founded that was doing projects in three states by the time he graduated. His siblings were equally inspired. His sister is an architect and each of his three brothers is an engineer; the youngest, with a Ph.D. in aerospace, now works for Oceanit.
His own children, a son and daughter, are following in the family footsteps, though Sullivan says he didn’t want to influence them.
“I tried not to tell them what to do,” he reflects. It didn’t work. “My daughter complained sometimes that ‘You have so much fun with what you do, I feel like I should be doing it too!’ ”
She is. She’s working on her Ph.D. in aerospace materials at the University of California, San Diego, studying ‘bio-mimicry,’ and creating new classes of materials, says Sullivan.
His son is equally involved. “He went to Middlebury College to do physics and economics and went to Stanford in engineering,” says Sullivan. “He did a startup in California and is in the process of selling it now – Simple Prints. You take pictures with your phone, and you can click, and a photo-book comes in the mail. Automatically. He developed it as a project at Stanford and it became a business. He did a presentation for his master’s program and people in the audience thought it was pretty cool, and he ended up getting funded.”
The Sullivans raised their children with family surf nights each Monday. He and his wife, attorney Jan Sullivan, who is Oceanit’s executive VP and COO, and current chair of the UH Board of Regents, would pick up their son and daughter at Iolani School, collect their boards from grandma’s house, and head to Diamond Head to surf before dinner. Then it was back to grandma’s, where dinner was waiting.
Sullivan has always known that if he doesn’t build balance into his life, he’ll work nonstop. It’s been that way from the day he started as an entrepreneur after completing his Ph.D. in engineering at UH-Manoa. So, at the end of each week, he evaluates how he’s doing – especially in his personal relationships.
“I sort of made a deliberate attempt on a weekly basis, to be mindful of each person, and to spend time thinking about how am I doing as a husband and a father. It’s important to spend time together, important to make time to do things. You can lose sight of the fact of what’s really important.
“When you work like this, you work a lot,” he continues, “and work can be a lot of fun, but trying to balance that is really important. Trying to always be aware of the balance of family and work is critical.”
He does the same thing at Oceanit. At the end of each year, all projects are evaluated and those that have become nonviable are dumped.
“We do that every year like clockwork. We review what we should be doing; what’s really important; how the world has changed. The concept is very simple – the Darwinian evolution of business. The environment will always be changing and we solve problems, so how do we match them up?
“Every year we have to ask that question: How are we going to make a difference to the world?”
It includes everything from getting rid of paper receipts to ‘What are the big ideas we should be thinking about?’ And that’s part of the discipline of how we operate.”
5 GREAT OCEANIT INVENTIONS
We asked Ian Kitajima, Oceanit’s corporate development director, for his favorite Oceanit inventions.
1/ HONUA: A SPECIAL TEDDY AND THE SICKBAY BED FROM STAR TREK
Hoana technology comes in different forms: The original bed lets caregivers monitor patients whether they are 10 feet or 1,000 miles away. The technology is like the Star Trek sickbay bed: Simply lie on it, and it will pick up your heart rate and respiration. Approved by the FDA for hospitals, Oceanit thinks the bigger market is in elderly and disabled home care, and in a creative car-seat application.
The car-seat version includes Honua technology in a wireless, battery-powered teddy bear that transmits vital signs when a child hugs it. Hoana Medical, an Oceanit spinoff, recently licensed its technology to Faurecia, a multinational automotive company. Hoana Medical, Eddie Chen, president, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.hoana.com
2/ INTELISOCKETS: PLUG IN AND TAKE CONTROL
Ibis Networks is an Oceanit venture spinoff that allows large organizations and campuses to measure and manage energy use. Developed with funding from Oceanit, the U.S. Department of Energy and the Office of Naval Research, InteliSockets plug into existing outlets and instantly create an encrypted secure wireless network. Plug in anything – an old refrigerator, window air conditioner or computer system – and the InteliSockets will report real-time energy use. When you know how much and when energy is being used, you can conduct “what if” scenarios to turn on and off electrical devices automatically. The system can be integrated with existing building management systems that are BACnet compatible.
Ibis Networks, Michael Pfeffer, CEO, email@example.com, www.ibisnetworks.com
3/ VIPA: VERSATILE INFORMATION PROCESSING ARCHITECTURE
VIPA systems ingest, process, fuse and display video and other forms of streaming data (like video from traffic cameras). Kitajima says VIPA goes beyond current programming paradigms that concentrate on individual actions and pieces of data to consider a whole data stream. This high-level view along with a graphical development environment allows users to quickly develop sophisticated applications that might otherwise take weeks to code. VIPA contains a rich set of processing modules that users link to form processing chains. These modules can contain custom-code or call-external libraries. This lets VIPA act as a universal application programming interface that allows the world’s software to work together. Kitajima says you can now apply the best algorithms in a single framework to quickly solve your toughest image-processing problems.
Technical Lead: Ed Pier, Ph.D.
4/ ANTICE: LOW ICE ADHESION ICEPHOBIC COATING TECHNOLOGY
Antice is a nano-engineered coating designed to minimize or eliminate ice adhesion on metallic components. Sponsored by the Air Force Research Lab, Kitajima says, Antice repels extreme water and ice, offers superior corrosion protection and is highly scalable on metallic objects of any shape and size. He says it creates 50 times lower ice adhesion strength than the most commonly used ice repellent and super hydrophobic coatings, according to independent research by the U.S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Lab.
Technical Lead: Ganesh Arumugam, Ph.D.
5/ NANITE: SMART SENSING CEMENT AND CONCRETE
Nanite is Oceanit’s smart sensing cement developed for infrastructure, weigh-in-motion, and oil and gas applications. A mix of nano-materials transforms traditional cement into a sensor capable of detecting curing, mechanical load and integrity. Kitajima says Nanite can be used in oil-well and gas-well cementing to ensure long-term wellbore integrity and zonal isolation, improving the economics of drilling and resolving environmental concerns.
Technical Lead: Michael Hadmack, Ph.D.
IF THEY CAN THINK IT, THEY CAN BUILD IT
Patrick Sullivan with Oceanit scientists and engineers. from left, Chris Sullivan, Bobby Izuta and Sedef Maloy in Oceanit’s Product Realization Space. That’s where different teams working on a project can meet to collaborate. The goal is to fast-track products for commercialization; the space is saturated with product information for quick reference. Photo by Aaron K. Yoshino
Ideas at Oceanit come from a specific way of thinking, but must also have a purpose, explains Patrick Sullivan, the company’s chief visionary.
“Everything we do has to find a way to impact humans or society. We usually start with ideas that we think are important,” he says, and then apply a process around “how to think.” He gives an example: the brain.
“We look at what’s going on around the world in a lot of research and then we break it into programs. For instance, we’ll start with the prosthetic brain: How do you help someone with brain damage restore some kind of functionality? Then we start thinking something very risky. One is a brain/computer interface. Another is artificial intelligence, so sensors reading your brain are helping you make good choices. So the idea started with the brain, but this particular program becomes one element in trying to understand the brain, and to do that we find programs where there’s funding that will help us address some of the risk.”
During its three decades in existence, Sullivan says, Oceanit has created 300 or more unexpected products to solve problems and each becomes an exciting project of its own. Like the treatment the company created to reduce ice buildup on wings and other exterior aircraft parts.
“There’s no ice (build-up) in Hawaii,” Sullivan chuckles, “but it’s a huge issue. And the results we’ve gotten from all the testing are off the charts.”
Then there’s a new product being used by oil companies on rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, which might have prevented the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Sullivan says it’s “a nanotechnology treatment for steel casing that we’re working on with Shell and other oil companies. They’ve been deploying pipe treated with this nano material in the Gulf and the results are outstanding. A company like Shell is looking at reducing its costs by using technology, and we developed it here, although originally we developed it for the Navy.”
The new material binds steel and cement better than techniques available now, he says, and means “these things are less likely to pop out of the ground. They’re safer rigs underwater, safer installations underwater.
“When you have nano particles,” Sullivan continues, “the behavior and physics are different because of the scale. When you are building things from a nano scale, you can modify performance in all kinds of ways to make a material do something you never thought it could do.”
Consider the experimental surfboard stationed at the entrance to Oceanit’s headquarters, suite 600 at 828 Fort Street Mall. To test nano technology early, in an actual product, the company built this surfboard with embedded nano titanium particles.
“It wasn’t so much about making surfboards, but more of an experiment to break through a mental barrier and show that we COULD make it,” Sullivan says. “To move things forward, you have to make things. And it led to a lot of other projects. Now we’re looking at this technology roadmap because it has resulted in collaborations with companies around the world with different nano material.”
Oceanit also takes its thinking into the community.
“They (Oceanit engineers) are very active in growing the pipeline of talent in the high schools,” says Michele Schimpp, deputy associate administrator of the Small Business Administration’s Office of Investment and Innovation in Washington, D.C. “They did a design thinking boot camp with 100 at-risk youth for the Department of Education last month. And they inspired local youth to go to the World Conservation Congress. They coach students in robotics and other STEM programs. That stuff really matters. This is exactly the kind of community investment that benefits all sides.”
Schimpp says Oceanit makes a difference in Hawaii.
“They create jobs, attract resources from outside the state, contribute to infrastructure, inspire startups, and engage in active corporate responsibility in a variety of arenas. Oceanit is right in there as part of the entrepreneurial eco-system with partners like UH, the HTDC (High Technology Development Corp.), XLR8UH and other local tech companies. These are the core ingredients when you think of a hub, and there’s Oceanit in a central role.”
On nights with a full moon, scientists and engineers from Oceanit gather at Duke’s statue on Kalakaua Avenue in Waikiki, colorful glow sticks fastened around their necks. Toting surfboards, they head for the water’s edge and plunge into the silvery shore break. “With a full moon, it’s magical,” says Patrick Sullivan, founder and CEO of Read the full article…