Brian Allen has been a scuba diver since the age of eight. That’s probably not surprising. Growing up in proximity to the sea with a father who was a military diving instructor, he was naturally drawn to the water. Further inspired by David Attenborough’s precursor’s to Blue Planet, Allen went on to forge a seafaring career that included treasure hunting, piloting robotic undersea vehicles and working on the construction of offshore wind farms before founding offshore data insights services company, Rovco and mapping and visual survey business Vaarst.
Earlier this year, Vaarst raised £15 million to fund further growth. The progress of the company – and its sister Rovco – reflects the strength of Britain’s offshore wind industry, but as Allen admits, there are some disadvantages to running a technology company solely from the UK base.
Into The Blue
Thanks in no small part to a 31,000-kilometer coastline, the U.K. has become a world leader in the development of offshore wind electricity generation. It’s an industry that not only involves the manufacture of towers, blades, turbines and cables but also a whole cast of supporting players, ranging from maintenance teams to survey specialists.
And if you step back to look at the bigger picture, the government is keen to progress the development of the so-called blue economy. As defined by the Admiralty, this is all about sustainable economic development in areas such as renewables ( tidal as well as wind), shipping and fisheries.
According to UK government figures, the global blue economy will be worth around £3.2 trillion by 2030. The hope is that British startups and scaleups will establish a leadership position in building new solutions.
All of which brings us back to Rovco and Vaarst. Allen began his journey towards entrepreneurship as a robot vehicle pilot. “I trained as a robotics technician,” he says. I worked for a range of companies. I climbed through the ranks until I was in charge of running the robotics on ships.”
By that stage, Allen was not only experienced in the job but also highly knowledgeable about the capabilities and the limitations of the robotic systems being used. Drawing on that perspective, he formulated plans for two complementary technology businesses.
Surveys And Tech
Rovco provides a range of hydrographic and geophysical survey services. Meanwhile, Vaarst offers technology to enable 3-D mapping and modeling of sites where wind farms are operating or being constructed. These maps do not simply inform wind farm operators of potential hazards such as sunken vessels, dumped WW2 munitions and unusual geological features, they also help to automate the navigation of remotely operated vehicles, which, in turn, enables the machines to work more efficiently.
As Allen explains, the two companies benefit from being part of an existing ecosystem. “The U.K. is a leader in offshore renewables whereas the U.S., at the moment, isn’t. Britain also has strong position in undersea robotics,” he says.
But there is a downside to a U.K. location and perhaps unsurprisingly, it is finance related. Put simply, rivals elsewhere in the world – notably the U.S. – find it easier to raise capital. “We turned over $12 million and achieved a $37 million valuation,” he says. In contrast, a firm with the same turnover in the U.S. could expect a valuation running to hundreds of millions.
Thus, to ensure that funding is available to continue with the necessary R&D, Allen says he will need to establish an operation in North America.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing and as Allen stresses, he is in the fortunate position of being able to look across the Atlantic for a second base. The innovation infrastructure in Britain has enabled him to grow his businesses and there has been an opportunity to self-finance by developing 3D technology that is then used by Rovco and financed by selling services to the industry. But further expansion will require access to a larger pool of funding.
But there is, perhaps, a bigger issue here. The blue economy is somewhat unsung in the United Kingdom. The wind industry itself is often perceived as the playground of large manufacturers – the people who make the kit that we all see on the horizon as we look out to sea – but if the government is correct, there is real scope for startups in the provision of technology and services. So while we hear a lot about investor cash pouring into renewable energy, A.I, and robotics, the blue innovation economy as a concept has a relatively low profile. With offshore activity playing such an important part in Britain’s transition to net zero, perhaps we will hear more about it as investors seel new opportunities.