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Meet the 36-year-old scientist who designed a foil boat that could reshape the industry

Sampriti Bhattacharyya broke free from traditional gender constraints in her native India to become the founder and CEO of a pioneering electric boat manufacturer in the United States. But ironically, when we connect via Zoom, she’s back in the confines of her teenage bedroom in Kolkata for the moment. first time in seven years. She points to the relics of her past that led her to train as an aerospace engineer in the United States: a copy of Stephen Hawking’s book A brief history of time (which further broadened her interest in the universe), the imposing Compaq computer on which she searched for the first time on Google “American stage” and… a poster of a boy band from the 90s. “The only The only thing I knew about America was NASA and the Backstreet Boys,” she says with a laugh.

Bhattacharyya, 36, has been defying all odds from the start. She attended a small local college in Calcutta, not one of India’s most prestigious college majors, and says people never thought of her as particularly intelligent. “Perhaps the best that was expected of me,” she recalls, “was to be a housewife or to do a discreet job. » But Bhattacharyya was always fascinated by space and curious about ocean exploration, taking astrophysics and cosmology classes as a “hobby”. She also embarked on robotics projects.

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Such determination can be a little isolating, she admits, but it “also has its advantages”: it pushed her to apply for no fewer than 540 internships on this Compaq. “Maybe if I had sent 200 emails, I wouldn’t have made it to the United States,” she muses. After receiving a total of four responses, she finally landed a coveted summer internship at Fermilab, America’s particle physics and accelerator laboratory. At age 20, Bhattacharyya boarded a plane for the first time and arrived in Chicago with $200 in her pocket.

She quickly fell in love with machines and coding, specifically how technology could help solve what she calls the world’s tough problems. This notion would become his modus operandi and the heart of his subsequent start-ups. After his work at Fermi and while earning a master’s degree in science at Ohio State University, Bhattacharyya landed an internship working on autonomous aircraft at NASA’s Ames Research Center. It was also at NASA that she first discovered the existence of young entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. “I saw Mark Zuckerberg and I was blown away by the fact that a young person could be a CEO,” she says. “It gave me the idea of ​​starting a business. »

MIT's Hydroswarm team in 2016. Bhattacharyya (second from left) holds a model of the company's submersible robot.

MIT’s Hydroswarm team in 2016. Bhattacharyya (second from left) holds a model of the company’s submersible robot.

First, she steeled herself to continue her education by entering MIT’s mechanical engineering doctoral program. In 2015, at the age of 28 and two years before obtaining her doctorate in robotics, she launched Hydroswarm. The company, which produced underwater drones to map the ocean floor, eventually closed, but Bhattacharyya’s goal of creating a fleet of autonomous ships remained. His ability to persevere despite, in his own words, “many failures,” is partly inspired by the billionaire founder of Amazon. “Jeff Bezos says, ‘Be stubborn on the vision, but flexible on the details,’” she says. “I did it when Hydroswarm didn’t work.”

Bhattacharyya pivoted by building an operating system to modernize existing boats and, she hoped, transform river transportation with self-piloted fleets. The pandemic derailed that plan, as it proved impossible to access the ships, let alone rearm them. The entrepreneur in her, however, was convinced that the electric revolution could extend from land to sea. Computing was becoming cheaper, sensors were becoming more advanced, and scalable manufacturing was now a real possibility. Instead of thinking smaller, she thought bigger: “It became clear that the solution was not modernization,” she says. “It was about imagining the next generation ships from scratch.”

In 2020, Bhattacharyya tapped Reo Baird, another MIT-trained engineer, to help him launch Navier, hoping to create a cleaner, more efficient way to travel on waves and, in doing so, reduce traffic jams on the roads. The duo built a core team of seven industry experts by selling them the dream. Bhattacharyya recruited hydrofoil specialist Paul Bieker as principal naval architect. “I called him and said, ‘I know you’ve built $40 million yachts for the America’s Cup, but if we develop this technology, it will change the way people move around the world. waterways,’” she said. When engineer Kenneth Jensen, who previously worked at Google and Uber, initially rebuffed his proposals, Bhattacharyya told him, “This thing has to exist. » He is now chief technology officer of Navier. His persistence also allowed the startup to raise $10 million in seed funding from companies including Google co-founder Sergey Brin, Android co-founder Rich Miner, and other equity investors. risk.

From its San Francisco headquarters, Navier designed a 30-foot, eight-passenger electric foiling yacht (the N30) that went from sketch to finished full-scale boat in 11 months. Three months later, a second ship was completed. “What surprised me was that they worked during the first sea trial,” says Bhattacharyya.

“Perhaps the best that was expected of me,” she recalls, “was to be a housewife or to do a discreet job. »

The N30 glides four feet above the water on three sheets of carbon that increase speed and efficiency while minimizing wake and drag. The foil concept has been around since the early 19th century, but Navier’s proprietary operating system sets the N30 apart. The ship’s sensors transmit information about wave conditions to the software which then adjusts the foils to ensure smooth sailing. (We tested it, and it was downright peaceful.) The tech lineup even includes self-docking, or “one-click docking.” The boat is also equipped with two 90 kW electric motors which allow it to reach 35 knots at full tilt and to cover 75 nautical miles at 22 knots. Thanks to foils and reduced drag, the zero-emission cruiser, Navier claims, is 10 times more efficient than traditional gas-powered boats. “It is definitely the most advanced electric marine vessel,” says Bhattacharyya.

The N30 will be available in three configurations: open ($375,000), hardtop ($450,000), and cab ($550,000). The company plans to deliver between 30 and 50 boats by the end of next year, with electromechanical R&D and assembly performed in Alameda, California. These personal ships will be a great way to “fine-tune” the technology, Bhattacharyya says, but are only a small part of Navier’s master plan. It hopes to eventually deploy electric water taxis and barges to transport people and goods to coastal cities around the world.

“I think when we achieve this,” she says, with a note of unwavering determination underlying her sunny optimism, “that would really be proof of my success.” »

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