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

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conference room when he heard the U.S.S. Cole had been attacked off the coast of Yemen by a small boat loaded with explosives. Seventeen U.S. sailors had been killed and many more wounded. He sat there in disbelief as he realized a billion-dollar warship had nearly been sunk by a couple of guys in a raft.

Juliet Marine would derive its name from a U.S. Navy “war games” exercise held in 2002. At $250 million, it was the most expensive exercise in Naval history. “Fleet Battle Experiment—Juliet” involved warships parked off the coast of California and a series of simulated small-boat attacks. The results of the simulation were grim: more than 20,000 deaths and massive losses to the fleet, in a Persian Gulf scenario. Yet, Sancoff says, the Navy hasn’t done anything in the past 10 years to guard against such attacks, other than work on targeted rocket systems.

“When you’re an entrepreneur, there has to be an overwhelming reason why you do it,” Sancoff says. “That was it for me.”

He saw a big opportunity—if only he could design a ship fast enough and maneuverable enough to intercept attackers before they could get close to big ships or shorelines. He had raced hydroplanes as a teenager—probably could bulls-eye womp rats, too (sorry, Star Wars joke)—so he had an intuitive feel for what it might take.

Which brings us to supercavitation. It’s an old idea. During the Cold War, the Russians developed a torpedo called the Shkval (“squall”) that could go more than 200 mph—five times as fast as a conventional torpedo—using a rocket engine and air ejected in front to produce a gaseous bubble completely enveloping the projectile. That reduces the friction between the hull and its surroundings by a factor of about 900, enabling superfast travel. Yet rocket-propelled torpedoes have downsides in performance and reliability; the sinking of the Russian submarine Kursk in 2000 is rumored to have been caused by a malfunctioning Shkval.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy and others reportedly have been working on a next-generation supercavitating torpedo since at least the 1990s. And in recent years, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) ran a program, called Underwater Express, to design a supercavitating submarine. There is also interest in using the concept to improve fuel efficiency for oil tankers, ferries, and other large ships, typically by creating air bubbles at the front of the hull. As of yet, however, nobody has publicly demonstrated a successful supercavitating craft.

To that end, after leaving Onux (which was bought by Bard in 2004), Sancoff spent several years doing research on his own and incorporated Juliet Marine in 2008. By June of last year, using $5 million of mostly his own money, his team had built a fully functioning prototype—Sancoff prefers the term “pre-production” vehicle. And earlier this year, he secured an additional $5 million from Avalon Ventures, the VC firm that invested in his last two companies.

At a Bay Area event in March, Kevin Kinsella, the Avalon partner on the deal, spoke glowingly of River Medical in particular. “We got 10x [return] in 18 months, and I only had to go to four meetings. An ROI of 2.5x per board meeting is fantastic,” he said. (Onux didn’t cash out quite as well, but it still worked out fine.)

After seeing firsthand what Juliet Marine built with $5 million, Kinsella said, “If you were taken around by a handler from Lockheed or Grumman or Northrop or any of them, and they told you, ‘We developed this on $150 million,’ you wouldn’t bat an eye.” He told the story of a meeting with Avalon and its fund investors. Someone asked Sancoff, “How did you get to be so capital efficient in your company?” Kinsella relays, “He leaned on the podium and said, ‘Because it was my money.’”

Not Your Grandfather’s Boat

OK, so here’s how it works, according to a patent filing (see diagram, below). The main compartment of the Ghost vessel, which houses the cockpit and controls, sits above the water in between two torpedo-shaped pontoons or “foils,” which are submerged and create all the buoyancy and propulsion for the craft. The angle of the struts that connect the foils to the command module is adjustable—so the craft can ride high in choppy seas and at high speeds (so waves don’t hit the middle part), and low in calm water and at lower speeds.

“We’re basically riding on two supercavitating torpedoes. And we’ve put a boat on top of it,” Sancoff says.

At the front of each foil is a special propeller system that pulls the craft forward. The propellers are powered by a modified gas turbine—a jet engine—housed in each foil; the air intake and exhaust ports for the engines are in the struts. As the ship moves through the water, the motion of the propellers creates a thin layer of bubbly water vapor that surrounds each foil from front to back, helped along by the presence of “air trap fins” that keep the vapor in contact with the hull (and keep liquid away from the hull). The vapor is what constitutes the supercavitation, so the foils can glide effortlessly through the bubbles.

“The key is the propulsion. You have to have a lot of power at the right location in this vessel,” Sancoff says. Exactly how this is done is … 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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