Vermont underwater exploration startup spotlights state high-tech efforts
RICHMOND (AP) -- Several times a week during the summer, engineers from Richmond's Greensea Systems take their remotely operated underwater vehicles to Lake Champlain, where they test navigation software they are developing that could end up being used in the world's oceans.
Their renovated building by the lone traffic signal in downtown Richmond is a long way from saltwater, but the software being developed there for offshore industrial work and for military applications or other government uses provides a glimpse of Vermont's small but economically significant, high-technology sector.
"They are a brilliant poster child of things you might not ever expect to be located in Vermont doing world-class work in a really specialized, highly demanding industry," said Lawrence Miller, Vermont's secretary of commerce.
Greensea provides software that helps undersea vehicles navigate in a world where there are no GPS signals. Underwater, the software calculates the position by combining a variety of measurements from different sensors.
The need for ways to navigate underwater was highlighted this year when Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 disappeared. Searchers have been combing vast stretches of the Indian Ocean in the as-yet unsuccessful search for the plane. Greensea President Ben Kinnaman said he didn't know whether any of his company's products were being used in the search.
Vermont's desire for high-technology jobs is well known. The state's elected and economic development officials regularly highlight grants or companies that fit the profile.
Officials couldn't provide a precise estimate of the industry's contribution to the Vermont economy, but the Vermont Technology Alliance estimated that average high-tech jobs paid more than $76,000 annually in the past two years and that its members have increased their workforces by about 25 percent.
About 170 high-tech businesses belong to the alliance, and most employ 10 to 50 people, said Jeff Couture, its executive director.
Greensea is small. In recent weeks, it went from 10 employees to 12, but it is planning significant growth this year that could see a doubling in size, Kinnaman said.
The success of Vermont's small high-tech businesses is highlighted by Burlington-based Dealer.com. The company grew to 850 employees in 15 years. In December, it was bought by Dealertrack Technologies Inc. in a deal worth nearly $1 billion, and its operations are staying in Vermont.
Kinnaman, who has degrees in control theory and physics, said that he and his wife grew up in North Carolina and that they'd been working in the Washington area when their desire to start a company coincided with their desire to start a family. They had vacationed in Vermont.
"We did our research. We were really impressed with the small business support and the small business intent of the state," he said.
They moved in 2006 and started selling their products in 2008. They've shipped more than 250 systems and are poised to take off, he said.
Greensea's primary customers are the U.S.government, including the Navy and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and manufacturers of underwater vehicles that use the software for navigation, Kinnaman said.
As hard as Kinnaman is working to expand his company and sell his underwater navigation systems across the world, he also sees his role as a local economic engine. He is providing local jobs -- something Greensea engineer Jeremy Larson, a 2008 physics graduate from the University of Vermont, appreciates.
"I've always had an interest in robotics," Larson said. "I just never realized I could do it in Vermont."
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