Igor Martin of Hydromea tells us about providing integrity data about submerged assets using autonomous underwater drones.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Igor Martin: Everybody is well, thank you. Fortunately, schools remain open in Switzerland and this means we, parents, can work without the need to police the kids in front of a screen. This is already a blessing.
Tell us about you, your career, how you joined Hydromea.
Igor Martin: I’ve spent over 15 years in a Fortune 100 company in various commercial roles. Prior to joining Hydromea as a late co-founder and CEO in 2018, I ran a global specialty chemicals business that was sold off during restructuring.
How does Hydromea innovate?
Igor Martin: My two co-founders have very unique and highly complementary technical skills. Both have expertise in two excruciatingly challenging technology areas – underwater communication and underwater navigation. This synergy fuels our competitive advantage in portable autonomous underwater technology that will significantly reduce the cost of underwater data collection, remove safety risks and contribute to the reduction of CO2 in the offshore energy industry.
How does the coronavirus pandemic affect your business finances?
Igor Martin: We were supposed to start our funding round when COVID hit, so it wasn’t fun. At the same time, we rely on our customers to be in their labs, hence the demand for our existing products dropped as lockdowns were introduced all over the world. We bootstrapped and doubled our focus on bringing our new product to market earlier just to hedge the risk. As a result, we launched a breakthrough patent-pending product in late September and we got approval for a grant from a UK-based offshore innovation hub that we worked hard during the pandemic to secure. Swiss government provided some assistance and even our landlord was kind enough to push some rent payments forward.
Did you have to make difficult choices regarding human resources and what are the lessons learned?
Igor Martin: We couldn’t maintain 100% employment of the team, so everyone reduced their working time. Because we couldn’t raise funding during that time, we couldn’t hire additional staff as was originally envisioned. This was a testing time for the team and, as one would expect, you see the best and the worst in people in such tough times. I think we’ve since learned to live with this situation and adopted our processes somewhat to keep pushing. We’ve now raised funding and are on our target to double the number of employees by the end of Q1’2021 despite continuing challenges across the world.
How did your customer relationship management evolve? Do you use any specific tools to be efficient?
Igor Martin: We’ve been using social media a little more actively than before. It’s true that we heavily rely on industry trade shows for our marketing and all such events were moved online. It’s a far cry from traditional in-person events. However, on the positive side, we’ve been able to attend events and engage in conversations that we could have never done in the pre-COVID times simply because we wouldn’t be able to travel to the US or Singapore, or Canada. Our focus remains on Europe for now, but our market is certainly global. Attending these events allowed us to have new contacts and relationships and this led to new business opportunities. Finally, the good side of the pandemic is that everyone around the world had to accept to conduct business over video conference – something that was absolutely unimaginable just about a year ago.
Did you benefit from any government grants, and did that help keep your business afloat?
Igor Martin: Here in Switzerland, we received a COVID loan and the government paid a percentage of salaries for those who agreed to reduced hours. This certainly helped our company stay in business, so we are very appreciative of the Swiss federal and cantonal programs and impressed about its speed and agility. We received the loan within 2 days from filing – not every country by far can claim such efficiency and reaction.
Your final thoughts?
Igor Martin: We develop a robotic inspection system for submerged assets in remote locations. Our target industry is offshore energy – wind, oil & hydrogen production – traditionally a very conservative industry. What we now see is that the pandemic accelerated the adoption of robotic technology for inspections by at least 5 years. Bureau Veritas, an inspection class company, reported a 900% increase in remote inspection requests in 2020. So, while the COVID hurt us in the short term, we see a net positive for our technology adoption in the medium term.