For deploying a safer and more economical way of collecting real-time data on the world's oceans.

Richard Jenkins
Environmental Services
Alameda CA 
$14 million
 Photo Credit: Courtesy company

Why It's Disruptive

Flying drones may get all the attention, but unmanned autonomous boats floating on the open seas are performing impressive feats as well. Saildrone's fleet of sailboats--which are outfitted with dozens of sensors, measurement tools, and cameras--can capture data on fish and wildlife populations, environmental health, ocean temperatures, weather, and climate change. They do the same work that dangerous manned missions have historically undertaken, but at a fraction of the cost. The company's data-as-a-service goes for $2,500 a day, and customers currently include commercial fisheries, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Coast Guard, and the Department of Homeland Security. (Saildrone's boats can also report to the DHS and the Coast Guard when they find narco-subs and boats smuggling drugs.) Saildrone says that it could eventually have enough drone boats to predict the world's weather with more precision than traditional satellites--something that private companies in shipping, oil, and plenty of other industries would surely want. By next year, founder Richard Jenkins hopes, there will be more Saildrone boats capturing data in the world's oceans than there are satellites in the sky.

Jenkins started Saildrone as a nonprofit endeavor with the backing of Eric and Wendy Schmidt's philanthropic foundation. In August 2015, Jenkins decided to turn it into a for-profit venture and raised $14 million from venture capital firms Social Capital, Lux Capital, and Capricorn Investment Group. Saildrone boats have collected data in the Bering Sea in Alaska, the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic, and the Pacific, and have tracked 60,000 nautical miles.

Biggest Challenges

Lux Capital investor Bilal Zuberi likens Saildrone's biggest challenge to the one Tesla faces. To become a leading electric car manufacturer, Tesla had to become the world's biggest battery factory. Similarly, to support its global data-collecting network, will Saildrone need to become one of the largest ship builders in the world? That's a future that will require a lot of capital. --Will Yakowicz