HubWeek Change Maker: Olivier Ceberio
Co-Founder and Chief Operating Officer, Resolute Marine
Olivier Ceberio is Chief Operating Officer at Resolute Marine Energy, a Boston based startup in marine renewable energy. Previously, Olivier worked for McKinsey & Company and the World Bank on projects that focused on leadership development and rural healthcare and education. Olivier was also a Program Director at Starsem where he directed satellite launch team on Soyuz, the rocket that launched Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin; managed development, production and inaugural launch of Fregat, a revolutionary rocket upper stage, and led refurbishment of Starsem’s launch facilities in Baikonur, Kazakhstan.
Zoe Dobuler: I’d like to ask about your background and how you found your way to Wave 2O.
Olivier Ceberio: I started my career as an aerospace engineer, and I was lucky to work for a startup right after school. The company, called Starsem, was launching satellites using the Russian rocket Soyuz, a precursor to SpaceX if you want. It was a startup so it was relatively easy to get responsibility and I ended up managing the launch of satellites six months into the job.
Everything was perfect, I was doing my dream job, I loved my firm and I had the best team I could imagine… until May 2002, when the roof of the largest building in Baikonur collapsed, regrettably killing seven people and damaging our facilities. I was appointed in charge of the refurbishment and had 3 months to make the facilities ready for the arrival of Mars Express. Any delay would have postponed this launch by 2 years.
The project was complex but achievable and ultimately our facilities were ready on time and I got the rare chance to see the Mars Express launch at 200 meters from the launch pad. However, living in Kazakhstan, sharing my life with people there and being exposed to the harsh conditions of life in this country outside the glamour of a rocket launch triggered a new frustration. I realized that all my previous successes as launch manager was dependent on the work of thousands smart, dedicated and professional people with decades of experience who were paid a mere 1/50th of my salary! The unfairness of the situation was staggering. I wished I could help these people but I had little means and no legitimacy to do it.
I know it’s naïve, but I was still pretty young at that time!
So I moved to Boston to do a dual degree in business and political science seeking new ways to improve our world. I explored international development in grassroot NGOs or multilaterals, but none of these experiences was a fit.
I badly wanted to be an entrepreneur but the narrative about entrepreneurship prevalent in the US was undermining. I can’t say how many times I heard that to be a good entrepreneur you need to be, at the same time, smart, persistent, flexible, with strong nerve, charismatic and of course a risk-taker? And this list is definitely non-exhaustive… in the US, to be an entrepreneur, you have to be some kind of movie superhero or some kind of semi-god!
A bare minimum of humility prevented me from even trying and so I did what all MBAs who lost their purpose usually do, and went to consulting. That was in August 2008 and in September, the financial crisis hit. I lost my job and was back in Boston with no real prospect for finding a job in the short term. So, in order to remain productive, I decided to give a shot to entrepreneurship by exploring ways to combine my passion for technology with my desire help developing countries and thought about using renewable energy to drive a desalination system.
I got involved in the MIT 100K business plan competition and met my partner, Bill. Bill’s company, Resolute Marine, was developing wave energy converters for fish farmers. For a year, I put up a business case of using wave for desalination that immediately got traction from a first customer in South Africa. Later on, Bill bought the idea, pivoted its strategy and made me his co-founder.
ZD: Obviously the structure of MIT Solve is all about posing solutions to these challenges. I’m wondering if you could articulate what problem or challenge your company sets out to solve and then how you go about doing it.
OC: The problem we are really trying to solve is the problem of water scarcity in coastal areas in developing countries and island nations. Places in the world with little or no infrastructure, but that have access to an incredible source of energy: ocean waves. And that’s what we do, we use ocean waves to drive a desalination and provide fresh water to these people.
ZD: So how exactly does your system work? How does it go about providing that infrastructure in places that it doesn’t already exist?
OC: It starts with the flap attached to the bottom of the sea that moves back and forth with the waves. The flap extracts the energy from the wave to pressurize seawater that is sent to the shore, where it is used to directly drive a reverse-osmosis process. So the main feature of our system is that it uses only ocean waves to produce fresh water and seawater is at the same time the input to the process and the energy medium. Although there is no electricity in the manufacturing process, we can co-generate electricity so we can pump the water where it’s needed, or we can provide both water and power to our local communities.
ZD: I read that you’re launching a pilot in Cape Verde next year. I was wondering if you could speak about that and what you have in store for that big test run.
OC: Actually, we hope to do it by 2021. We are in the final stage of demonstration, but there is quite some work to be done. Right now, we are completing our first demonstration in lab conditions in Boston. This will then be followed by a technical demonstration in PLOCAN, a test site facility located in the Canary Islands. We will then take everything to Cape Verde, where we will do our first demonstration in a commercial context with our first paying customer.
Cape Verde is a very good place to launch our technology. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the country. It’s an archipelago west of Africa and one of the driest countries in the world. It has no river, almost no rain and very limited aquifer. Already in Cape Verde 85% of water is desalinated, and because it’s an archipelago they have no indigenous source of energy, so they have to import all the oil necessary to drive these desalination plants and as a result, the cost of water is one of the most expensive in the world. Cape Verde on the other hand has actually excellent wave energy resources. So it is a perfect fit for us!
ZD: You mentioned meeting your co-founder here after going to school in Boston. Why did you choose to build your company here? Is there anything particular about Boston that has helped your company grow?
OC: When I joined Bill, Resolute was already in Boston and we had no reason to move out. Boston is a fantastic hub for startups. It has everything a startup needs to grow: a supportive community, access to financing, access to talent etc. On top of that, Boston and its suburbs have a very big Cape Verdean community, which is of course very helpful for us. As we grew, we had to open offices in other countries, sometime to catalyze support or to access specific expertise. So now, we also have offices in Ireland, Cape Verde and South Africa.
ZB: My final question is about your experience being part of MIT Solve. I’m curious to hear what the most valuable takeaways were and what you feel you’ve gained from being a part of that cohort.
OC: It was a fantastic experience and I would encourage every entrepreneur to apply. Over the last 10 years, we always have been very active, participating in business plan competitions and incubator programs. Money is scarce and we find these kind of programs quite useful to find non-dilutive cash and to keep making useful connections. Boston has some of the best programs, the MIT 100K, MassChallenge and of course, MIT Solve. When we joined Solve, we were looking for an additional board member and thanks to the MIT Solve connections, we found an incredibly talented entrepreneur who agreed to join us and we are discussing a potential new independent board member.
ZD: If you had to give advice to someone starting a company in Boston, or specifically an energy, sustainability tech startup, is there any advice that you would give them?
OC: Embrace complexity. Entrepreneurship is a human adventure and humans are not simple. So get ready to not be sure about what you are doing, whether “it” will work or not, and accept behavior that does not seem rational from your own perspective. If you develop a stomach for confusion, you may be in a better position to conduct the investigative work necessary to understand what’s going on in your system and adapt your strategy accordingly.
The HubWeek Change Maker series showcases the most innovative minds in art, science, and technology making an impact in Boston and around the world.