* Company expects to turn cashflow positive in 2012
* Board will consider sale or IPO after bigger contracts
* Liquid Robotics hires Sun Microsystem’s Vass as CEO
By Sarah McBride
SAN FRANCISCO, June 7 (Reuters) Liquid Robotics, which has a robot-based technology for measuring ocean data, has won a $22 million investment from VantagePoint Capital Partners and Schlumberger (SLB.N), the world’s largest oilfield services firm.
The investment, the company’s first from venture capital, will help Liquid Robotics expand its business of deploying unmanned floating devices to remote parts of the ocean to measure things like oil spills for energy companies or fish populations for fisheries.
The Sunnyvale, Calif.-based company also announced the appointment of Bill Vass, former president and chief operating officer of Sun Microsystems, now owned by Oracle ORCL.O, as its chief executive officer.
Currently, Liquid Robotics is sending two of its vehicles to the Japanese coast to measure radiation levels in the water after the March explosion and fire at the Daiichi nuclear plant.
Vass said that the savings for companies using his technology can be considerable. Tracking oil levels in water, for example, can cost $30,000-$70,000 a day when a boat is deployed to the area, said Vass. Subscribing to the data from Liquid Robotics devices, known as Wave Gliders, might cost around $500,000 for the full year, he said.
The company’s technology can convert the up-and-down motion of ocean water into forward motion, so the vehicles can propel themselves without the large batteries required in other devices.
But the Wave Gliders have some drawbacks.
They cannot take ocean-floor coring samples, for example, Vass said. And they are slow, taking about four months to cross the Pacific Ocean. Recently, a shark attacked one in the Gulf of Mexico and disrupted an acoustic array; the company had to program the glider to return to base, he said.
About a third of the company’s business comes from the oil and gas industry, in which Liquid Robots competes to some extent in areas such as ocean-data measurement. One competitor in that area is Schlumberger, which invested $2 million of the $22 million.
An additional third of Liquid Robotics revenue comes from government projects, and the last third from fisheries, Vass said. He hopes to attract new customers such as telecoms companies who want to expand the reach of their service.
Once the company lands bigger contracts, its board could consider an initial public offering or sale, most likely to one of the oil companies with marine-services divisions, Vass said.
Liquid Robotics’ revenue this year will total in the low double-digit millions, Vass said adding that he expects the company to become cash-flow positive sometime next year. He plans to expand the 60-unit fleet by about 15-25 units a quarter.
Co-founder and former CEO Roger Hine remains at the company, serving as chief technology officer. (Reporting by Sarah McBride; editing by Carol Bishopric)