The Story Behind My Investment In Saildrone

Years ago, I used to work in Oakland, commuting downtown daily while living off Dolores Park. That seems like a lifetime ago. Now, entrenched with work and family in the Valley, I rarely get to make it over to the East Bay — I wish that wasn’t the case, as I do believe many great founders emigrated across the Bay Bridge for slightly more sane rents and in anticipation of the changes coming with the spillover effect of entrepreneurship, as well as Uber’s new building in downtown Oakland. Perhaps the promise of gritty new founders and food with real taste will lure me back over time. I hope so.

Earlier this year, I invested in a small company in the aviation defense space. The founder of that company works closely with various agencies associated with DARPA and the Department of Defense, and even before the ink dried on my investment in his company, he told me about another “drone” startup in the East Bay — but this one built autonomous drones for the ocean. What? He couldn’t remember the name, so I did some web sleuthing and finally stumbled upon the company, indeed located in Alameda. I had a number of mutual connections to one of the co-founders, and reached out to him directly.

He wrote back right away.

In a few days, I rearranged my schedule for the day in SF and took a trip across the Dumbarton Bridge, up 880, and snaked my way to Alameda, out to the shore, and into the old hangar that now houses Saildrone. I got to meet the team, toured the facility, and saw the construction of various sizes of bright, buoy-orange seatless catamarans, outfitted with a neat onboard sensor panel, solar panels, and an unforgettable dorsal fin. I went through the motions in meeting, but in the back of mind, I was mainly thinking, one, “How do I get into this company?” and two, “How can I help them raise the round they need to?” I immediately assumed the former would work out, so started working on the latter, and am happy to have brought along a great VC firm into the syndicate around the Series A.

There are so many things Saildrone can do, but perhaps the most interesting is in its cost-efficient capabilities to continuously collect ocean temperature data down to the fractional degree in various ocean microclimates. For those who know how climate change models are built, one of the largest assumptions in those models concerns ocean and sea temperatures — a vessel like Saildrone can capture a granular-level of temperature data that can hopefully better inform and bolster those models. And, this is just the tip of the Saildrone dorsal fin, so to speak.

Saildrone is an exciting investment for me that touches upon three seemingly unrelated themes I believe will play a part in defining the future: (1) The market for industrial robotics, including autonomous drones (whether aerial or water-borne) will be enormous — I have a future post coming on this topic and my various investments in the space, stay tuned; (2) That local governments and municipalities will be under financial pressure from lower tax bases to reinvent their operations and services with software (which lines up with my investments in Remix, OneConcern, and Seneca); and (3) The rate of climate change is actually accelerating faster than even most liberal models can predict, and will force many coastal nations to set aside billions of dollars for FEMA-style funds to pay for all sorts of technologies to help deal with the effects of rising sea levels and atmospheric change — this lines up with OneConcern, and now Saildrone (check out a video here and see yesterday’s coverage in The New York Times).

Haystack is written by Semil Shah, and is published under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license. Copyright © 2017 Semil Shah.

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