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Laminar Scientific Founder Narayan Iyer on the Power of Wave Energy

Introduction

Solar energy is often in the spotlight for being one of the cheapest forms of energy available. But wave energy — though less well-known — is also a promising form of renewable energy. It’s easy to estimate how much energy waves will generate, and wave energy is dependably available throughout the year.

Laminar Scientific is developing a patent-pending nearshore wave energy solution. The company’s technology aims to combat the challenges usually associated with collecting wave energy, including multi-directional energy and costly maintenance. We reached out to founder and CEO Narayan Iyer to hear more about the company’s plans and the need for a truly international approach for achieving sustainability.

Note: This interview was conducted over phone and email. It has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Zee Zhong

In your own words, how would you describe your company?

Narayan Iyer

As the world experiences worsening effects of climate change, Laminar Scientific is contributing pioneering technology to the ocean energy industry. We have seven pending patents that provide low-cost, low-material, and efficient solutions that can be adapted around the world. By marrying fresh perspectives from the aerospace industry to energy veterans (a candidate for a PhD in offshore energy and a veteran energy entrepreneur with a previous exit), Laminar is poised to innovate with relevance to the field.

From inventions that tackle the multi-directional chaos of the ocean environment to ones that capture resonant and natural motions from waves, we are set to make a large impact in this industry.

Zee Zhong

What inspired you to take the leap and start this company?

Narayan Iyer

I was working for an avionics company as an engineering leader designing cockpits for NASA and Airbus airplanes. But I really felt like my attention needed to be paid to clean energy given the steep acceleration of climate change. I grew up near the ocean and always admired the enormous and constant power of waves. I knew that this was the time to take the dive. I hired a passionate and driven engineer, Brady Kakert, to work for Laminar, and together we brainstormed and built prototype after prototype to prove our concepts. We attended conferences and networked heavily, and scientists, professors, regulators, and marine institutes were fascinated by our fresh perspective in the field, endorsing our enthusiasm in pursuing our inventions.

Extrapolations from bench tests showed extraordinary and consistent efficiencies in handling this unique environment. We continued to innovate to address all the issues of past systems and other barriers of entry.

Zee Zhong

Who is on your team and how did you come together?

Narayan Iyer

We grew our team to include a wave energy PhD candidate, a veteran energy entrepreneur with a successful exit under his belt, and a top aerospace structural engineer. Key advisors also assist us in our decision making and design. We also have a trustworthy team of freelancers, manufacturing contractors, and designers to carry out our mission.

Zee Zhong

How is Laminar Scientific transforming the wave energy industry?

Narayan Iyer

I believe the team is a brilliant mix. Our CFO, having been part of power plant operations and running/selling a business, is a practicalist. I personally am an innovator. Brady can do anything he puts his mind to. Jian is the domain expert/scholar. Saptarshi is a structures expert. And Mina is the marketing genius.

We have each contributed to innovations from an energy efficiency perspective, an operations and maintenance perspective, and a manufacturing perspective. We believe we have come up with a practical and efficient workhorse of a product that is inexpensive to manufacture, addressing historical failures and challenges.

After thorough engineering and business review, Laminar and a Southeast Asian energy company have completed negotiations for a licensing contract and pilot power plant, expected to be signed formally (comprising early revenue). Laminar has signed a letter of intent with IntriEnergy for collaborations on hybrid energy systems. Laminar is also negotiating a memorandum of understanding with an Indian company for wave-powered coastal charging stations for electric two-wheelers and vehicles.

Zee Zhong

What does the competitive landscape look like, and how do you differentiate?

Narayan Iyer

We have a diverse patent portfolio. With ocean energy being in its relative infancy and real estate being so vast, we do not have extreme competition in the field. In fact, we see other ocean energy companies as opportunities to license our technology under specific terms, such as locale, in a shared mission to bring more clean energy for humanity. 

Nevertheless, we believe our technologies have several engineering advantages over others.

Previous wave energy systems needed to be overengineered to survive storms, leading to high manufacturing and maintenance costs and low performance during average conditions.

Laminar has a unique passive mechanical peak-load aversion system (with two patents pending on just this technology). This means that mechanical systems passively stop force transmission when the force of the wave is too high, without any active controls.

Many competitors today are using less efficient and more complex hydraulic systems (instead of mechanical) to handle peak loads, with active controls to dissipate said peak loads.

Hydraulic systems are more expensive to build, less efficient at capturing energy, and often cause leakage that needs repair (unless overengineered).

Laminar uses mechanical systems.

Laminar further boosts energy efficiency by using a world-class motion rectifier that rectifies and smooths motion prior to transmission to a generator.

Laminar has created novel maintenance protocols to simplify human entry into the buoy, inspired by ocean rescue missions. We have a patent pending on this process.

Some other wave energy companies, such as Eco Wave Power Global, require significant coastal infrastructure to operate (cliff, jetty, pier, etc.). And waves at shore are not as energetic as those nearshore. 

Zee Zhong

What is your product road map and who will be in your customer pipeline?

Narayan Iyer
  1. Present (zero to five years): We are focusing on our nearshore wave energy systems (smaller grids). This is the device that is shown in our main Wefunder pitch as the go-to-market product. We believe our nearshore system is well suited to improve energy independence in coastal communities around the world without the need for expensive offshore maintenance hurdles.
  2. Future (five to 15 years): We will make hybrid energy systems (large utility scale). Each device will offer multiple sources of energy.

In the next three years, we want to prove our go-to-market nearshore buoy, refine its design, iron out maintenance and operations procedures, and then market it to operators around the world. Then, in the fourth and fifth year, we want to start marketing and manufacturing the nearshore buoys for sale to these operators. This would be our optimal business model instead of just licensing technology. Coastal power plant operators will be our customers in this model.

Zee Zhong

How efficient would energy production become if Laminar Scientific technology were used at scale?

Narayan Iyer

If we operated at least three scaled wave energy power plants (at least 10 buoys per plant), we expect a profit margin of about 67% to 75% for a 10-year operational period. Wave energy is constant (unlike wind and solar), and our technologies and methods provide a low-cost entry into business. However, our most scalable route would be to provide our buoys for worldwide operators instead of operating power plants ourselves, and although the profit margin per buoy would be approximately 35%, our volume can be much larger.

Although just an extrapolation from small-scale tests, we expect an average power efficiency of 60% and a peak efficiency of 82%. 

Note: Future projections cannot be guaranteed.

Zee Zhong

How do you intend to use the money you raise this round to scale the business?

Narayan Iyer

The first priority is to pursue our core patents in key regions around the world. We will also be expanding our engineering team, likely including one intern, one full-time engineer, and one manufacturing liaison (in our Asia office). In addition, we will perform miniature-scale testing of our fully integrated go-to-market system in a state-of-the-art hydraulic facility at the University of Iowa, which will provide key indicators for refinement of the system prior to any open water test. Finally, some of the money will also be spent on manufacturing the large-scale open water prototype, although we will likely realize an opportunity for our license customer to fund this undertaking.

The open water prototype and the steps we take to achieve it will provide an extensive proof of concept for operators around the world looking to transition to clean energy. This milestone will be imperative for Laminar to reach and fund mass manufacturing of the go-to-market system.

Zee Zhong

What do you want potential investors to know about you and/or your company?

Narayan Iyer

Compared to the industry, I believe our valuation reflects our relatively early stage. Many other ocean energy companies have performed early investment rounds at $10 million to $200 million valuations, gone on to disappoint and even undergone subsequent down rounds.

What if we do not succeed? I understand that startups are risky, but I can guarantee one thing: Whatever our level of success, we are contributing tremendously to the clean energy engineering literature of the world with novel ideas that will be learning points for future generations of engineers and entrepreneurs in the fight against climate change! And you are funding that!

Zee Zhong

As you think about the business 5-10 years down the road, what do you see exit opportunities looking like? Have you set any future goals for the company?

Narayan Iyer

I believe that the point of scalability for us is when we have: 

  1. Cultivated demand from operators for our go-to-market buoy. We will do this by undertaking extensive testing of the open water prototype as well as ironing out operations and maintenance procedures.
  2. Obtained the ability to meet those demands after expanding our manufacturing operations. This is the point when we believe we would have cultivated the necessary public sentiment to begin the initial public offering process. We believe we will reach this point in five years.

As for a merger and acquisition (M&A) path, it would really depend upon whether we find an entity that shares our values and goals and can help us achieve it more efficiently than without said M&A.

Zee Zhong

As a minority founder, what difficulties have you encountered working on your company? What advice would you give to other minority founders?

Narayan Iyer

I usually try to avoid this type of conversation, but since you asked, I believe this is a good medium to provide my thoughts. 

I have attended several international conferences in the field of ocean energy and have noticed that the overwhelming majority of leaders in these conferences are of European descent, and any discussion of diversity, if it ever arises, mentions only women and young contributors in the field. And even the very few people of color I would encounter in these conferences (including myself) would be residents of Europe, the USA, or Australia but never of Africa, Asia, or South America. 

I was trying to understand the reasons for such a homogenous population in these conferences, which in many cases express the intent of being “international.” And one reason, in my opinion, is the extreme cost of attendance that does not price in national market value of such a conference. Africans, Indians, etc., will not be willing to pay $300 to attend a conference because it is not within the realm of their market value and therefore is not an equitable inclusion of the international community. International communities are therefore left out of major innovations and inspirations in the field. This sort of exclusion causes the inadvertent maintenance of the status quo caused by the colonial ages. (It is why Africa and India became poor in the first place.) Although absolutely no such malintent is ever in the mind of an overwhelming majority of modern people, it would be good if we actively think and remind ourselves and each other of such issues, especially in conversations of diversity.

The term “minority,” I would argue, is not determined by a mere count of population in a community. (Asians would be the majority in the international sense.) It is more about a distribution of power.

In order to solve global climate change for a more stable planet, we need true global inclusion and contribution from all people and not just the West. I’ve tried to inculcate this passion of mine in my business and focus our go-to-market product for people of island communities who suffer from a lack of a well-connected energy grid. Their energy costs tend to be very high because of the need to ship in diesel. Our wave energy converters will tap into a vast resource of energy that is all around them, allowing for their societies to advance.

In terms of investments, I believe that there is a huge trust factor. However, sometimes trust can be skewed based on who one grew up around, who one’s friends were, and any other inherent biases one has, and I believe, due to general segregated housing and schooling in America, African Americans will continue to face disproportionately less investments than any other group.

To minority founders, I would say: Keep your head up high, never lose your spirit, believe in yourself, and let results speak for themselves! Sometimes, you may need to prove yourself more than others, so focus on doing just that!

We look forward to seeing where Narayan and his team take the company. Laminar Scientific is currently raising on Wefunder.

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