Founder Focus: Dr. Yi Chao, CEO and Founder of Seatrec
What do you do after a doctorate at Princeton and a distinguished 20-year career at the prestigious NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory?
You start a business, of course.
Dr. Yi Chao did just that. He is the founder and CEO of Seatrec, a cutting-edge oceanographic firm concentrating on harvesting thermal energy from the natural change in temperature from the ocean surface to its depths.
Dr. Chao has a masters in Geophysical Fluid Dynamics and a Ph.D. in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, both from Princeton University. Before coming to the U.S., he studies at the University of Science and Technology in China.
He and Seatrec were featured June 16 at the first-ever Sunstone Academy, an initiative to teach investors and potential entrepreneurs about start-ups, early investing and more.
After the presentation, Dr. Chao sat down for a chat.
“It’s definitely a process,” he said about launching and growing a company. “It takes time to mature. And it is hard to take a product commercial.”
At JPL, Dr. Chao was the project scientist for the $300 million NASA Aquarius Satellite Mission. Later in his career there, he focused on ocean modeling and underwater technology development. That’s where the seeds of Seatrec were planted.
Dr. Chao retired from JPL in 2016 and incorporated Seatrec. His goal, he said, was to develop a thermal energy generator that could greatly extend the life of underwater sensors, underwater drones and more. It would be replace batteries that often are left on the ocean floor after they are depleted.
“We’ve been fortunate with multiple government contracts, with the DOD (Department of Defense) and the Navy,” Dr. Chao said. “We are doing a lot of R&D (Research and Development), and we’re continuing toward building a charging station where you could even allow others to charge.”
Seatrec already has one product on the market — the SL1, a charger for robotic probes that replaces batteries and generates electricity at depths up to 100 meters. A second product in development now, the SLG, that would power underwater gliders.
Dr. Chao has the scientific expertise to make Seatrec work. But it has taken help to ramp up the business side, he said, including investment from Sunstone Management and others.
“We started with family and friends,” Dr. Chao said. “In 2020, Sunstone was part of the first seed round, and is the second lead investor. They have the ability to follow us in the long haul, and they are great with allowing us a networking presence.”
Seatrec has worked primarily in Southern California, from Santa Barbara to San Diego, with Sunstone’s Irvine headquarters conveniently located. (Seatrec headquarters is in Vista, in San Diego County.) Dr. Chao said he has been fortunate to find angel investors as well.
It hasn’t all been rosy, though. Seatrec was ramping up in 2020 with its first investment round when the coronavirus pandemic hit. As the SL1 reached market stage, the supply chain clogged up, and still hasn’t returned to normal.
But Dr. Chao is optimistic about the future.
“I want to map the ocean floor, and do it sustainably,” he said. “Did you know that 80% of the ocean floor still hasn’t been mapped? I want to scale up to a global level … and by 2030 have the first global map.
“And I want to get to a live sound map to track whales and underwater activity that ships, submarines could use to avoid collisions.”
And when that happens, Sunstone will be there.
For more about Seatrec, go to seatrec.com.
About Sunstone Management: A Financial Times (FT) Americas’ Fastest Growing Company
Sunstone Management, with the Sunstone Venture Capital Fund, is a diversified private capital firm located in Southern California that invests in diverse early-stage technology entrepreneurs who demonstrate the promise to build great companies. We believe in the aspirational power of southern California to attract and inspire the most sophisticated investors and the most ambitious entrepreneurs in the world. We deliver new and exciting opportunities for economic growth through the creation of innovative public-private-partnerships, and our unique experience across government, education, and private sectors.
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