Ocean robot start-up bullish on success but not California business climate

150 150 Matthew Grant Anson

This piece was originally published on the California Economic Summit blog

Imagine a world where devices called Wave Gliders can patrol, study, and survey the ocean for up to a year by using the power generated through the ebb and flow of the sea.

It sounds like advanced technology from a decade or two into the future, but one California business has made this aquatic innovation a reality now. 

Sunnyvale-based Liquid Robotics was incorporated in 2007, and since then the mission has expanded from monitoring humpback whales to pitching the Wave Glider to governments as a tool for things ranging from monitoring decommissioned oil rigs to tracking hurricanes to covert government border surveillance. The Discovery Channel’s Shark Week is set to air a story on how Wave Gliders help track Great White Sharks off the coast of California, making Liquid Robotics’ flagship product an innovation that defines versatility.

And with engineering, production, and administration all occurring in Sunnyvale, the company is very much a product of the Golden State.

“Liquid Robotics is in California because of the technical innovation that occurs in Silicon Valley due to the unique blend of professional talent and venture capital that exists here,” COO and CFO Steven Springsteel said.

Springsteel points at the universities in the area as key in producing thousands of qualified, talented people that keep the venture capital flowing in. 

As the leader of a burgeoning tech start-up, Springsteel is especially qualified to offer an opinion on innovation in the state, and he has some advice for California to keep competitive in a globalized market.

“Keeping areas like Silicon Valley great places to live and work and making it cost effective for employers to hire in California is very important,” he said. “Here are the challenges the state faces. The cost of living is such that most of the manufacturing jobs have migrated out of the state leaving only the higher paid personnel remaining. California is not a corporate-friendly state.”  

“The tax rates are high, there are few incentives at the state level – which causes local municipalities to provide those incentives – and many local communities are under severe financial stress,” Spingsteel added.

California may want to listen to the advice of its homegrown company if it doesn’t want to miss out on the dividends of its success, because Springsteel is bullish on the future of Liquid Robotics.

“LRI will grow significantly over the next five years,” he said. “We will be a large and successful company in five to ten years creating potentially thousands of jobs in California and around the world. An investment by California in LRI is an investment in California’s environment, security, and economy.” 

But Liquid Robotics is by no means limiting itself to its home state, considering the regulations and taxes standing in its way. “LRI will likely continue to maintain its corporate HQ in the state, but we will be moving our manufacturing out of state and possibly offshore,” Springsteel said. 

The state will need to take great steps to prevent these types of migrations by its start-up businesses. “California will have to maintain its system of higher education and needs to restructure its tax structure to ensure the ongoing innovative and entrepreneurial culture that exists within the state,” Springsteel said. “It must resolve or at least make steps to solve its fiscal crisis.”

While California has been famously a breeding ground for innovation, it will continue to miss out on the successes of these businesses as relocate, if it continues to refuse to adapt to economic realities.

The California Economic Summit Action Plan calls for engaging with and capturing the needs of the thriving start-up culture here in California. By creating a statewide Economic Competitiveness Plan and a California Innovation Index, the state could incentivize businesses like Liquid Robotics to stay and grow right here. 

And by re-tooling regulations and the unfriendly business environment that dogs California’s image, the state could become a place where businesses actually want to be, not escape from.


Matthew Grant Anson

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