Julie Angus is the CEO at Open Ocean Robotics. Julie is a Canadian rower, adventurer, writer, cyclist, and entrepreneur. She has combined her passion for exploration and the ocean by launching an ocean-tech startup with her husband, Colin Angus. We had a chat with Julie to find out more about her incredible journey, and what the future holds for ocean technology.
Julie has long pursued an entrepreneurial career path. She did an undergrad at McMaster in Hamilton, then her Master's in molecular biology here at the University of Victoria, and started working in business soon after.
“I really like that intersection of science and business where the research that you're doing makes an impact on the world and you can see the betterment of society based on cool stuff you create in university.”
“I worked in biotech in tech transfer, business development, and a bit of venture capital. My degree was in molecular biology and I really enjoyed the business side of things.”
It was around this time that Julie’s adventurous nature led her on what would be a truly remarkable adventure. Following her record-breaking journey across the Atlantic, Julie won the National Geographic Adventurer of the Year Award and had the opportunity to write a book and speak to others about her experiences.
“I took what I thought would be just a little break to row across the Atlantic Ocean. That was a five-month journey. It had its challenges for sure. It did get a fair bit of attention afterwards because it was quite a challenging row and set some records.”
“Somehow it morphed into a career where I could do more adventures, write more books, and produce documentaries. All of those expeditions were water based, being in small boats on the ocean, and that’s been an ongoing theme.”
As a result of those expeditions Julie and Colin started to design boats “because we found that the boats we wanted didn't exist.” They found that other people wanted the boats that they made so they started Angus Rowboats, a boat business designing rowboats and sailboats for expedition-style journeys and selling them as kits and plans. But Julie says they have been interested in autonomous boats for quite some time.
“I'd say stretching back to our row across the Atlantic. Just spending that much time on the ocean, it makes you recognize how most people will never see that part of the ocean and how you can't protect what you can't see and don't understand. And that's why for a large part, our oceans have been historically neglected. And still, 80% of our oceans are unexplored, unobserved and unmapped.”
“I strongly feel that autonomous technology and technology, in general, can overcome a lot of those challenges. Developing an autonomous boat began as kind of a passion project in a corner of our garage. When we recognize what we had could actually make a difference, that it had some advantages compared to technologies currently on the market, we formed that into a company and here we are.”
Open Ocean Robotics builds autonomous, ocean-going boats that collect surface data, including things like ocean temperatures, current, salinity, chlorophyll, algae blooms, hydrocarbons, and looking for oil spills. The technology can also measure things on the bottom of the ocean. They were involved in a pilot with the Coast Guard looking at seafloor data, mapping the bottom of the lake using a multi-beam sonar system. It's a broad range of data collection and customers include offshore industries, government research, helping ocean industries operate more affordably more safely, while improving our overall understanding of the oceans.
Like many entrepreneurs, Julie describes her role as CEO of Ocean Open Robotics as multi-faceted - combining her passions for tech and ocean science with the demands of running a tech start-up.
“We have seven people in total. So, I'd say everybody wears a lot of different hats. So, my role is involved in financing. I raised a pre-seed round of $540,000. I work on getting grants, non-diluted funding, and I work on partnerships.”
The company is involved in a number of accelerators, including the Creative Destruction Lab accelerator. They work with MaRS Discovery District and a number of advisors to make sure that they really understand the market, and find the best product-market fit while developing customer relationships. That doesn’t mean Julie is hands-off though, “I'm really involved in the technology too, because a lot of our technology direction is driven by our customers and satisfying those needs. “
Julie attributes her achievements so far down to her curiosity about the world around her.
“I always want to learn and explore whether that's the physical world, or the business world. I think just being open to opportunities when they present themselves and walking through those doors is important. It’s important to recognize that you take on challenges and you might fail, but if you don't try, then you have no chance of succeeding.”
Growing up she was, in her own words, ‘the nerdy kid who loved to read and loved science”. A life featuring adventures around the world and starting an ocean-tech company might not have seemed obvious to a young Julie and was a long way from an early career in business development.
“When I went across the ocean, I thought this would be just a little break from my career” - quite the career break!
Challenges are inevitable on any entrepreneur’s journey, and Julie has encountered them all, saying: “I think if you are an entrepreneur, obstacles and challenges are like a daily part of your life. There's just so many. I mean, where to start? Your technology doesn't work properly. You don't have any money to develop it. You can't find the right people. Nobody wants to use it. People want to use it for different things. People tell you that you're going to fail. You do fail.”
“I think it's constantly two steps forward one- and three-quarter steps backwards and you just have to kind of pick yourself up and keep going. And I think even in adventuring lots of people thought that we’d fail. We couldn't row across the Atlantic, it was too challenging, didn't have the experience, didn't have the financing. So, it's just a matter of recognizing your own strengths, preparing yourself properly, and knowing when the criticism you get is constructive and when you need to dismiss it.”
Many of the challenges faced in business are stressful and take time to navigate through but crossing an ocean under your own power presents some unique challenges. In spite of carefully planning their route using all of the historical data available they were caught in a hurricane:
“It was the worst hurricane season in history, and we got hit by the most northern and most Eastern hurricane that had ever formed. So, that was something that was unexpected, but yet we were prepared for, because we made our boat seaworthy.”
Overcoming such hurdles, however unexpected, taught Julie valuable life lessons:
“I think that challenge, and other challenges too, have really taught me that we all have fear about things and it's important to understand where that fear comes from. And sometimes that fear can be more debilitating than the actual consequences of it and that by taking things one step at a time, you can make it through even these challenges that you might think would be insurmountable before you embark upon them.”
Julie speaks passionately about the vibrant ocean tech community and industry in Victoria and the Cascadia region. Ocean Networks Canada, for example, are world leaders in collecting ocean data using a fiber-optic network cable system and other methods. We have ocean tech companies that are creating sensors to measure things that we couldn't measure before and in better ways. “By working together we can create collaborations and partnerships to solve some of the problems that our oceans face.”
Open Ocean Robotics produce solar-powered boats that can go out onto the ocean for months at a time collecting ocean environmental data and sending that back in real-time - giving us a more comprehensive understanding of the ocean.
“They're very much like satellites for the sea. And that's what we envision; creating a system where we can have an understanding of our ocean that allows us to operate more sustainably and more safely in our oceans, as well as understand them better. This will help us understand the impacts of climate change, overfishing, and pollution, as well as begin to address some of these issues.”
Looking to the future adventures with a young family at home, and an ocean-tech company that is growing rapidly Julie says: “I think our adventures are going to be virtual. We'll be sending our autonomous boats out on the ocean and seeing it through their eyes, which I'm very excited about.”
One of the areas of opportunity for the business in the increase in efficiency of photovoltaic cells. While their prototypes have made us of off-the-shelf flexible solar panels Julie is keen to hear from companies that are advancing the tech, saying that they are “definitely interested if there are providers that we could work with to increase the power that we're able to collect from photovoltaic cells and their efficiency.”
We asked Julie if she could go back to being 21 years-old, what three pieces of advice would give her younger self:
- not to sweat the little things so much
- not to be so hard on myself. None of us are perfect.
- There's always going to be somebody smarter, better, more capable than you and just to do your best and that showing up is really 80% of the game and don't let your fears stop you from going out and trying something.
You can find out more about Open Ocean Robotics here: https://openoceanrobotics.com/