Juliet Marine’s “Ghost” Ship Emerges from Stealth Startup, Gears Up for War

About an hour north of Boston, in a city by the sea, there’s a project underway to reinvent the marine industry. More specifically, the marine defense industry.

Imagine a boat that moves through the water differently from any other boat in existence. It uses “supercavitation”—the creation of a gaseous bubble layer around the hull to reduce friction underwater—to reach very high speeds at relatively low fuel cost. Its speed and shape means it can evade detection by sonar or ship radar. It can outrun torpedoes. Its fuel efficiency means it has greater range and can run longer missions than conventional boats and helicopters.

Now imagine that this vessel has already been built and tested. It “flies” through the water more or less the way it was designed to—like a high-tech torpedo, except part of the craft is above water—and it can be maneuvered like a fighter plane. “It’s almost as much an aircraft as it is a boat,” says its inventor, Gregory Sancoff, the founder and CEO of Juliet Marine Systems, a private company in Portsmouth, NH.

The vehicle, dubbed the “Ghost,” is the first of its kind and is garnering attention from organizations like the U.S. Navy, Coast Guard, defense contractors, and foreign governments—as well as hackers in foreign countries, who are presumably trying to figure out how it works. Juliet Marine Systems has received about $10 million in total funding, about half of which comes from its founder and private investors. The startup’s institutional investor is Avalon Ventures, a VC firm with offices in the San Diego and Boston areas.

Until recently, the project was kept under wraps because of secrecy orders from the federal government. But this summer, Sancoff says, the Ghost—which looks like something out of Star Trek (see photos)—will be ready for prime-time deployment. His team of 16 employees is working on integrating weapons and sensors for military missions. “We have a fully functional, basically go-to-war boat right now,” Sancoff says.

The question is, does it really work? And, more to the point, can it be used for missions safely, reliably, and effectively? If the answer is yes—and that’s a big if, from an outside perspective—one could imagine a squadron of Ghosts being deployed to the Persian Gulf, say, to defend warships and other interests against “swarm” attacks by small boats, Sancoff says. The vessel also could be used against pirate attacks, for Coast Guard rescue missions, or to transport workers to and from oil platforms. The technology might have much broader uses, too—in global cargo shipping, for example, to reduce fuel costs, or for commercial jet skis. (Wacky as it is, the concept is not as far-fetched as, say, a submarine that can also fly.)

But to get a better sense of the ship’s real prospects—and the company’s—let’s consider the whole story.

From Medical to Marine Tech

Sancoff, 55, is a prolific inventor and serial entrepreneur who, I’m told, takes engineering magazines to bed. He grew up in a military family and went to high school in Lawrence, MA. As a kid, he lived on Army bases and says he remembers saluting the flag when he got out of the car. Sancoff never served in the military, but that’s probably because he was too busy inventing stuff.

He started his first company when he was 18—a machine shop for doing rapid device-prototyping for other businesses. He sold that and headed west to San Diego in 1982, at age 25. As a consultant, he became an expert in medical devices, including systems for delivering intravenous fluids, collecting health data, and other applications. He started a new company, Block Medical, and sold it for $80 million in 1991. His next company, River Medical, was based around a new kind of drug-delivery device for hospitals. River acquired IVAC, a medical-device firm divested from Eli Lilly, and ended up being sold to Advanced Medical (IMED) for $400 million in 1995.

Sancoff’s next big project was to start Onux Medical, a surgical tech company based in New Hampshire. It was there, in 2000, that he first got inspiration for Juliet Marine and the Ghost ship. Sancoff was sitting in a … Next Page »

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Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and Editor of Xconomy Boston. E-mail him at gthuang [at] xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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