Sampriti Bhattacharya broke free from traditional gender constraints in her native India to become the founder and CEO of a leading electric boat builder in the United States. But ironically, when we connected via Zoom, she returned to the confines of her teenage bedroom in Kolkata for the first time in seven years. She refers to traces of her past that led her to train as an aeronautical engineer in the United States: a copy of Stephen Hawking’s book Brief history of time (which led to her increasing interest in the universe), the massive Compaq computer on which she first Googled “American Drill”, and… a poster for a 90s boy band. “The only thing I know about America is NASA and the Backstreet Boys,” she says with a laugh.
The 36-year-old Bhattacharya has been defying the odds from the start. She attended a small local college in Calcutta, which is not one of India’s most prestigious academic institutions, and says people didn’t think she was particularly smart. “The best that was expected of me was to be a housewife or work a simple job,” she recalls. But Bhattacharya had always been fascinated by space and curious to explore the oceans, taking astrophysics and cosmology classes as a “hobby.” She has also been involved in robotics projects.
Such single-mindedness can be a bit isolating, she admits, but it also “has its upsides”: it led her to apply for at least 540 internships at that Compaq company. “Maybe if I sent 200 emails, I wouldn’t have made it to the United States,” she reflects. After receiving a total of four responses, she eventually landed a coveted summer internship at Fermilab, US Accelerator and Particle Physics Laboratory. At age 20, Bhattacharya boarded a plane for the first time and arrived in Chicago with $200 in her pocket.
She quickly fell in love with machines and programming, specifically how technology can help solve what she calls the world’s tough problems. This idea would become her modus operandi and the core of her subsequent startups. After her gig at Fermi and while earning her Master of Science degree from The Ohio State University, Bhattacharya secured an internship to work on autonomous aircraft at NASA Ames Research Center. NASA is where I was first introduced to young Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. “I saw Mark Zuckerberg, and I was blown away by the fact that someone so young could become a CEO,” she says. “This planted the idea in my mind to start a company.”
First, she armed herself with more education and entered the mechanical engineering doctoral program at MIT. In 2015, when she was 28 and two years before completing her PhD as a roboticist, she launched Hydroswarm. The company, which produced underwater drones to map the ocean floor, eventually folded, but Bhattacharya’s goal of creating a fleet of autonomous ships remained. Her ability to persevere, despite “numerous failures,” in her estimation, was partly inspired by Amazon’s billionaire founder. “Jeff Bezos says: Be stubborn about the vision, but flexible about the details,” she says. “I did that when Hydroswarm didn’t work.”
Bhattacharya built an operating system to upgrade existing boats, and hoped to transform waterborne transportation with self-driving fleets. The pandemic has thrown a wrench into that plan, as it has proven impossible to access the ships, let alone refit them. However, the entrepreneur in her was convinced that the electrical revolution could expand from land to sea. Computing has become cheaper, sensors have become more advanced, and scalable manufacturing is now a real possibility. Instead of thinking smaller, she started thinking bigger: “It became clear that the answer wasn’t retrofit,” she says. “He was imagining next-generation ships from the ground up.”
In 2020, Bhattacharya enlisted fellow MIT-trained engineer Rio Bird to help launch the project. Navier, hoping to create a cleaner, more efficient way to travel on waves, and in the process, relieve congestion on the roads. The duo created a core team of seven industry experts by selling them the dream. Bhattacharya appointed watercraft specialist Paul Baker as chief marine engineer. “I called him and said, ‘I know you built $40 million yachts for the America’s Cup, but if we scale this technology, it will change the way people move on the waterways,’” she says. When engineer Kenneth Jensen, who previously worked at Google and Uber, initially rejected her offers, Bhattacharya told him: “This thing has to exist.” He is now Chief Technology Officer at Navier. Her persistence also led to the startup receiving $10 million in seed funding from the likes of Google co-founder Sergey Brin, Android co-founder Rich Miner, and other venture capitalists.
Working out of its San Francisco headquarters, Navier designed a 30-foot, eight-passenger electric yacht (N30) which went from sketch to full-sized boat in 11 months. Three months later, construction of the second ship was completed. “What surprised me was that they worked on the first sea trial,” says Bhattacharya.
“The best that was expected of me was to be a housewife or work a simple job,” she recalls.
The N30 glides four feet above the water on three carbon foils that enhance speed and efficiency while reducing wake and drag. The concept of foil has been around since the early 1800s, but Navier’s proprietary operating system is what sets the N30 apart. The ship’s sensors feed information about wave conditions to software which then adjusts the foil to ensure a smooth ride. (We tested it, and it was completely quiet.) The technology suite also includes automatic docking, or “one-click docking.” The boat is also equipped with two 90 kW electric motors that allow it to reach 35 knots at full tilt and cover 75 nautical miles at 22 knots. Thanks to the foil and reduced drag, the zero-emission cruiser is, Navier claims, 10 times more efficient than traditional gas-powered boats. “It is definitely the most advanced electric marine vessel,” says Bhattacharya.
The N30 will be available in three configurations: open ($375,000), hardtop ($450,000), and cab ($550,000). The company expects to deliver between 30 to 50 aircraft by the end of next year, with R&D and electromechanical assembly work conducted in Alameda, California. These personal ships would be a great way to “fine-tune” the technology, Bhattacharyya says, but they’re only a small part of Navier’s master plan. It hopes to eventually be able to introduce water taxis and electric barges to transport people and goods in coastal cities around the world.
“I think when we achieve this, it will really be a testament to my success,” she says, a note of steely determination underlying her sunny optimism.
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