Company plans carbon-fiber sub to dive deeply, cheaply
Entrepreneur isn’t content to charter subs; he wants to build one out of cutting-edge composites for research and industrial uses.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Founders: Stockton Rush and Guillermo Sohnlein
Mission: Charters deep-sea submarines to commercial and research customers
Making history: Last year OceanGate’s Antipodes sub discovered a WW II-era Grumman F6F Hellcat plane off the coast of Miami Beach
When OceanGate co-founder Stockton Rush tells people his company charters private submarines to researchers and commercial customers, the usual response is a blank stare, he says. People just can’t wrap their heads around why anyone would want to lease a private submarine.
Now, Rush intends to go even further than chartering the company’s two existing submarines. He’s making his own — a manned, deep-sea submersible made of lightweight and ultra-strong carbon fiber.
In collaboration with the University of Washington’s Applied Physics Lab and Boeing’s Research and Technology wing, Rush’s Cyclops is being designed to take five passengers up to nearly 10,000 feet below the ocean’s surface. It is expected to debut for charter use in 2016.
OceanGate began in 2009 with a five-seater submarine it purchased from a private owner. The company’s current flagship sub, Antipodes, was introduced in 2010 and has made 130 dives in the past two years. Its missions have been as diverse as shipwreck exploration in Elliott Bay and an environmental-impact dive in the Gulf of Mexico for an oil rig company.
Cyclops would hardly be the first nongovernmental sub to dive the 10,000-foot depth — James Cameron’s private submarine dived nearly 7 miles to the bottom of the Mariana Trench last year — but it will be the only manned submersible available for charter use at such depths, says Rush.
Rush says the majority of private subs around today are strapped to yachts or reserved for government-sanctioned research dives, leaving very few available for commercial or private charter. Research teams that wish to use government subs have to go through a lengthy and costly process. Plus, providing subs solely for research purposes isn’t economically viable.
So earlier this year when co-founder Guillermo Sohnlein left OceanGate to pursue opportunities in submarine tourism, Rush moved to fill a different market gap.
“I saw this burning commercial need for a sub like Cyclops, and I knew I could build it,” he says.
Rush says Cyclops is “like going to a Swiss Army knife from a scalpel.” It’s designed to suit missions ranging from film crews, to research teams, to oil companies — all in one machine.
The vessel’s hull will be made from 7 inches of razor-thin layers of carbon fiber reinforced plastic. It’s the same kind of material that forms the wings on Boeing’s 747 and probably the handle of your tennis racket, but using it in a deep-sea vessel is uncommon.
Traditionally, such vessels are made with steel to withstand incredible pressure. Rush says using the lighter carbon fiber cuts down on bulk and material while still being ultra-strong. That allows for a faster sub, a larger viewing window and an entirely different deep sea experience.
OceanGate expects it will cost between $10 million and $20 million to produce Cyclops. That’s on top of a $5 million grant for the UW lab’s work. OceanGate and a few undisclosed investors will fund the project, he says.
Rush says there’s a lot more money than people think in the deep sea industry.
The largest opportunity for Cyclops will likely be from the oil industry’s needs for environmental impact research and drilling exploration.
Most missions going as deep as Cyclops anticipates are done using remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), unmanned robots controlled from the surface.
But Rush says jobs involving inspection, data collection, and exploration could be done better with a human crew, as ROVs may take multiple dives before completing the task correctly.
“There are certain jobs where having eyes on site is going to be a huge value,” he said. “ ... You can’t do everything remotely on the end of a robot.”
Plus, he says, even when a research team does get a government submarine or an ROV, it’s neither cheap nor easy.
“You can rent a deep work-class ROV that will go down 3,000 meters and it will only cost you $10,000 a day but it will require a $100,000-a-day ship.”
Rush intends using his Cyclops to be considerably cheaper. With no specialized launching ship or tether system required, he estimates the total cost will be $35,000 charge per day.
Boeing contributed to the design of the sub’s carbon fiber hull, but Rush says he’s not sure how large the company’s role will be going forward. Boeing declined to comment on the project.
The UW lab’s been working with OceanGate since 2010, when it employed “Antipodes” to test out new sonar equipment and robotic arms from Seattle-based underwater imaging company BlueView Technologies. Rush was on BlueView’s board of directors at the time.
“It seemed to me that his small company could benefit from having a team of technical experts to come in and help him on some of the design and engineering work,” said Robert Miyamoto, associate director at the UW Lab. “And we have the facilities.”
Rush’s 14-employee team moved into the UW lab’s space over a year ago. Miyamoto says the submarine could be used in the university’s Oceanography programs to provide hands-on experience to students.
The company’s second submarine, Lula, was acquired and refurbished last year and took its first dive last week. Rush said it will serve mainly as a way to test systems for Cyclops.
A California native, Rush was a venture capitalist with San Francisco-based VC firm Peregrine Partners before coming to the Pacific Northwest 24 years ago to run Kirkland-based Remote Control Technology.
With a BSE in aerospace engineering from Princeton, he also worked briefly with McDonnell Douglas as a flight test engineer before getting an MBA from Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.
“I wanted to be the first person on Mars,” he recalled. “But I realized several years ago that what I thought was space exploration is actually ocean exploration.”
More than for commercial use, Rush says he ultimately wants to see Cyclops used to advance deep-sea research. But without a viable business hook, he says, research doesn’t stand a chance.
“Very few things get funded because they’re good ideas, they get funded because they’re good businesses,” he said. “There are good business reasons to go sub- sea, I hope the beneficiary of that is as a species we understand more about the ocean.”
Alisa Reznick: 206-464-2195 or firstname.lastname@example.org.