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The engineer in WHOI’s Deep Submergence Laboratory recognized an acute need for a long-term power source to support moorings and autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) gathering data from remote regions of the ocean. Such a device would have to withstand the most challenging marine conditions, without human intervention. And, it would need to overcome the biofouling and breakage issues that plague existing renewable energy technologies at sea.
It sounds like a tall order, but fortunately Littlefield had some ideas. With fellow engineer Jeffrey Kaeli, he developed and patented a prototype for a vertical-axis wind turbine (VAWT) that could generate power during optimal wind conditions and collapse to stowable size during transport and inclement weather—all on its own.
After the first design phase, Littlefield continued to brainstorm applications beyond the research world. What if this collapsible, durable, and relatively small turbine could provide power in disaster relief areas, or as a microgrid power source in rural coastal communities, to replace or supplement fossil fuels?
The possibilities were endless. But where could he find funding to move this niche technology forward to the testing and commercialization phase?
Littlefield’s answer came in the form of a call for proposals from Propeller, an ocean-climate impact fund that announced a unique partnership with WHOI in October 2022. As part of its mission to accelerate climate solutions and invest in the Blue Economy, Propeller has set aside significant resources to fund WHOI research over the next five years, with additional support and access to a network of ocean-climate tech entrepreneurs. With WHOI physical oceanographers Anthony Kirincich and Eve Cinquino, Littlefield submitted a proposal to Propeller to fund the turbine’s next phase of development.
“Our ocean holds tremendous potential for scaling up climate and carbon solutions, yet only a fraction of the venture capital dollars that have flooded into climate-tech flow to the seascape of ocean-based solutions,” said Propeller founder Brian Halligan. “[We] launched this fund to change this dynamic—to invest in the planet’s best hope to decarbonize the global economy and turn today’s ocean startups into tomorrow’s ‘narwhals’—world-class companies at the nexus of ocean innovation, science, and technology.”
During a three-day intensive “Ocean MBA” course at WHOI’s George and Wendy David Center for Ocean Innovation, Littlefield got acquainted with the people behind Propeller, including Halligan, a WHOI Corporation Member who also teaches at MIT’s Sloan School of Business. He left the course with “a realization that there’s much for a WHOI engineer to learn from the business world” and more focused ideas for taking the turbine to commercial scale.
Littlefield admits that his experience as co-founder of a startup (Armada Marine Robotics, Inc.) opened his mind to the idea of venture capital funding, but says Propeller’s expertise in the climate technology marketplace made it easier to take the plunge. Now with a year’s worth of funding, he and his partners have designed a scalable prototype that will be ready for testing on the WHOI dock this fall. Depending on the results, Littlefield said the next steps could include licensing the technology, creating a startup, or something in between—aided in no small part by Propeller’s network and resources.
“We have this tremendous ecosystem of problem-solvers and incredibly intelligent people at WHOI. I think it makes sense to exercise the existing entrepreneurial spirit to ensure the technology we develop can become widely available. Propeller enables WHOI researchers to explore commercialization, without having to necessarily start their own company or dive all the way into the commercial world,” Littlefield said.
Through its partnership with WHOI, Propeller hopes to spur the multi-disciplinary innovation needed to bring ocean and climate technologies like Littlefield’s turbine from research and development phase to commercialization, said Julie Pullen, a partner and chief scientist at Propeller. Grants are awarded based on the recommendations of a WHOI review committee, with advice from WHOI’s Office for Technology Transfer and a Propeller representative. Final awards are made at the discretion of WHOI Deputy Director and Vice President for Science and Engineering Richard Murray, with input from the Director of Research Strategies and Innovation, Carol Anne Clayson.
“Our ultimate goal is to fund transformative ideas,” said Clayson. “We really are at a time when we have to be getting our tools and capabilities out into solution spaces. This funding mechanism is a way to make the work we’re already doing even more impactful.”
Calls for proposals for the next round of Propeller funding are anticipated in early summer, with a “Lunch n’ Learn” session for potential grantees ahead of proposal deadline to be held at AVAST Innovation Hub.