You probably have not heard of them yet, but Arix, a hot new Yale-founded startup, is poised to change the industrial inspection industry and save lives doing so. The fledgling tech company was founded by Yale School of Management (SOM) student Dianna Liu. Liu, a former employee of ExxonMobil, has first-hand experience with the dangerous consequences of corrosion -- including fire, explosions, and stress failures. The inefficient and labor-intensive way in which it is currently detected -- with humans dangling from scaffolding -- is about to change.
Arix won the , which is supported by venture capitalist Brian Miller, Chief Investment Officer of North Sound Partners. The prize is awarded to the best Yale student-led tech venture. As Miller explains of his pick, "Arix Technologies will attempt to improve the practices currently used to detect and manage corrosion. Estimates of the annual global cost of corrosion approach $2.5 trillion -- over 3% of global GDP! Existing corrosion management techniques are still using antiquated methods to measure corrosion damage. With its novel technology, Arix has a strong probability of success in this extremely large opportunity." $25,000 Miller Prize this Spring
Liu and her team are participating the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute's summer fellowship program. I caught up with her to learn more about the technology and the future of corrosion inspections.
Kate Harrison: What is wrong with current corrosion maintenance based on your experience?
Dianna Liu: Existing corrosion inspection methods are labor intensive and expensive. And yet, despite the industry's best efforts, it is still difficult to reliably prevent leaks with current inspection technologies. This is not for lack of trying, however, as the oil and gas industry highly prioritize the safety of their employees and the reliability of their assets. For instance, ExxonMobil has some of the best engineers in the world, but even with an army of dedicated engineers and managers focused on preventing incidents, and a culture that highly values safety and reliability, the lack of effective inspection tools was an ongoing obstacle to their goals.
The potential consequences are too big to ignore. In a setting such as an oil refinery, the chemicals flowing through their pipes can be highly flammable or highly toxic. In a worst-case scenario, a leak can cause fires or explosions. Even in a best-case scenario, the company faces unplanned downtime that can cost millions of dollars in profitability. Currently, the U.S. petroleum refining industry spends $3.7 billion annually on corrosion-related direct costs. This is the industry we're targeting first, but the problem is far bigger. The National Association of Corrosion Engineers (NACE) predicts the direct cost of corrosion to be $276 billion in the United States each year, or nearly 3% of GDP.
Harrison: You came to SOM with a plan for starting a company that would tackle the issue of corrosion. Some people just start their companies when they have a new idea. What prompted you to go back to school to launch yours?
Liu: When I was exploring business schools as a potential location to start Arix, I realized that Yale's School of Management had exactly what I needed. I had a solution in mind, but knew I couldn't succeed in developing a company on my own without excellent role models and solid mentoring. Luckily, Yale has an incredible network of mentors, advisors, alumni, and entrepreneurial organizations -- all of whom were eager to assist me in this venture. On the engineering side, Yale SOM is, in my opinion, the business school most closely integrated with its parent university. For me, this had huge implications. I needed a team of high-level engineers, so having this integrated university environment accessible throughout my planning was crucial. I spent my first weeks at Yale networking around campus and talking to engineering students. After many discussions, I met Petter Wehlin and Bryan Duerfeldt, two extremely talented graduating mechanical engineering seniors at Yale College. They've been working with me all year, and happily for me, they plan to transition to full-time following graduation. As a team, we've been fortunate enough to make use of not only Yale's mentorships, connections, and competitions, but also the creative workspaces at Yale's Center for Engineering Innovation & Design, and the Yale SOM Entrepreneurship program.
Harrison: Tell me about the robot-based system ARIX has designed.
Liu: We're tackling creating a new corrosion management solution that integrates robotics and data analytics. The robot we are developing will continuously collect data on the state of corrosion at any point of a pipe. This will offer a radical improvement over the isolated data points that existing technology provides. Furthermore, with access to this data, we will employ sophisticated visualizations and predictive analytics, which will provide clients with a holistic view of their assets. Ultimately, this application of science and tech will enable them to reduce risks, improve operational strategies, cut costs, and save lives.
Harrison: What has been the response from industry?
Liu: Because corrosion is such a pervasive issue, the response from our contacts in the industry has been extremely positive. We've been encouraged to complete prototyping as quickly as possible so that industry participants can begin working with our technology immediately.
Harrison: What's next for the company?
Liu: We are excited about the progress we've made so far towards developing a novel solution to revolutionize the way corrosion is inspected and analyzed in manufacturing plants. We are continuously improving our prototype and plan to begin customer field-testing before year's end. We've also been very fortunate to receive a lot of recognition for ARIX. Over the past month, we've won three major Yale competitions, producing a total of $49,250 in prize money. Arix was also selected to join the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute accelerator this summer. We hope to continue to use this momentum throughout the rest of this year as we begin funding from early stage and angel investments. We're targeting oil refineries as our initial customers, but in the long term, we expect to expand into manufacturing, infrastructure, and utility sectors to help address the global corrosion problem in a new and highly effective manner.