Cheryl Zimmerman sees clear sailing ahead for FarSounder Inc., but then, like the Providence, R.I.-based startup, she's well versed in looking ahead while anticipating the unforeseen. Intrigued by the technology -- the first underwater sonar system to read in 3-D the depths and obstacles immediately ahead in near real-time -- she quickly enlisted as a director when FarSounder incorporated in 2001. Joining the company in May 2002 as COO, she became president and CEO a few months later.
Since that time, Zimmerman has navigated FarSounder through difficult venture capital waters to its first product launch last month. Now she's ready to ride the wave of transitioning from early development to commercial production, knowing she's on the cusp of delivering a new generation of navigation.
"For thousands of years people have been navigating on the ocean with very little data, and 60 percent of that data is 60 years old or in some cases dates back to Capt. Cook's charts," Zimmerman points out. "We see this as a leap in technology. Just as GPS came along and made paper charts almost obsolete, we see our sonar system as the next leap."
What sets FarSounder apart is its novel 3-D ability that adds depth to existing products' distance and angle capabilities, thereby separating the ocean floor from any obstacles. For the first time, mariners can also detect shallows ahead. The first product, the FS-3, introduced at International Workboat Show Dec. 3, targets large vessels such as barges and large yachts. Zimmerman expects early customers from the offshore oil industry, where hazardous spills are always a danger.
Zimmerman's enthusiasm for and involvement with FarSounder's technology, actually, precedes the company. She had watched her son Matt Zimmerman and Jim Miller co-develop the idea, first at the University of Rhode Island and then at a predecessor company. "I helped guide them through the correct business decisions to spin off FarSounder and work on the forward-looking sonar," she says.
A mechanical engineer with a master's from Tufts, Zimmerman recognized the technology's promise and, with her 15 years in management, knew the ins and outs of building a company. Most recently, as vice president and CFO, she helped increase revenues 30-percent year after year for seven straight years at Allied Consulting Engineering Services, the full-service firm she founded with her husband to specialize in engineering design for the construction industry. "It's still a growing company," she says. "I left it in good hands."
Previously a product engineer at Helix Corp, Zimmerman worked on split sterling cryogenic systems. She began her career at General Electric, where she participated in the manufacturing management program in the Gas Turbine Division with quality control assignments in the Thermocouple Division as well as product and manufacturing assignments in the Aerospace Instrumentation Group.
The marine industry was new to her, Zimmerman admits -- "but an engineer is always prepared to learn and solve new problems. That's our training." She's brought on the right advisors, staff and consultants, she says. Responsible herself for operations and representing the company, her involvement includes everything from fundraising -- "which is constant, everyday work" -- to working on contracts and intellectual property to setting up industry relationships. "I'm very involved in relationship-building right now, especially with large defense contractors as well as with the commercial product industry."
Now that FarSounder has a first product, fundraising has become less daunting. "I came in at probably the most difficult time for a small startup with expensive equipment to go fundraising," Zimmerman says. "It's been a struggle but we've had some wonderful people believe in the company and its technology. Now that we're not quite as early and we're into our new product release, we've had a lot of interest from angel and venture groups. I can see that the tide is turning."
The big turnaround should take place six months into 2004, when the market has been validated. "Then I see sales dramatically taking off," Zimmerman says. "We have customers who are just as excited about the technology as we are and so they will have trials on different types of vessels, such as barges on inland waterways, and in different geographical areas."
A year from now, Zimmerman expects the company to have grown from six on staff to 14 or 16. The distribution channels she's establishing now in the commercial, recreational, scientific and research sectors should be in place. There will be more offerings as customers provide input into the other products and peripherals they'd like to see. The initial commercial customer base should have attracted the recreational, 75-foot-and-up yacht owner. By then, FarSounder will likely begin to consider the international requests already coming in. And research and development will continue to advance potential enhancements.
On the books now is a cooperative research agreement with the Navy with the ultimate goal of identifying the objects FarSounder's technology can detect. "We'll be able to classify in-water mines, and the technology will have commercial applications as well, such as whether you're seeing a $30,000 tuna," Zimmerman says.
Also interested are high-speed ferries looking to avoid whales, so high-speed sonar is in the works. In fact, early funding from the National Marine Fisheries Service supported the research in order to protect the endangered Right Whale. The sonar is environmentally friendly, Zimmerman notes, since it operates in similar frequencies and at a quieter sound level than dolphins and is out of the hearing range of the great whales.
Other potential runs the gamut from detecting terrorists swimming along the shoreline to navigating LNG tankers through Boston Harbor. Any ship involved in maritime transportation needs FarSounder's technology, Zimmerman believes. And not only does international trade rely on maritime shipping, but the shipbuilding industry is producing larger, faster ships out of thinner materials that only necessitates the 3-D forward-looking sonar's use as well.
Still, steady but focused is Zimmerman's mantra when hurrying along is so very tempting. "We're keeping a close handle on this. We don't want to grow too fast that we lose track of our objectives and our quality," she says.
"It's very exciting to be at this point," Zimmerman continues. "We have potential customers calling us all the time and asking us for quotations. We're working with such new technology and bringing it to market, which is always invigorating. This is an exciting time for all of us here. We can see the waves coming and we're getting over those waves as the tide changes."
vol. 6, issue 4, January 2004