TalentView: David Kelly, Innovasea

WeAreAquaculture spoke to David Kelly, CEO and CTO of Innovasea, to learn about his professional evolution from electronics engineer to aquaculture technologist, his outlook on the future of the industry worldwide, and why he – and Innovasea – are “all-in on aquaculture”.
David Kelly, CEO of Innovasea. Photo courtesy of Innovasea.
David Kelly, CEO of Innovasea. Photo courtesy of Innovasea.

WeAreAquaculture spoke to David Kelly, CEO and CTO of Innovasea, to learn about his professional evolution from electronics engineer to aquaculture technologist, his outlook on the future of the industry worldwide, and why he – and Innovasea – are "all-in on aquaculture". 

From defense electronics to information technologies, and from undersea robotics to offshore aquaculture innovation: David Kelly's career has been defined by a series of leading-edge technologies. As CEO and CTO of Innovasea since 2016, he has spearheaded a wide range of projects on open ocean and land-based aquaculture, as well as fish tracking technology and data monitoring for fish farming operations around the world.

"I think it's a very interesting time for aquaculture," Kelly says. "If you look at most protein production, the science on it has been ongoing for at least 150 years: the land grant college movement for agriculture in the United States started after the Civil War; the industrial production of chicken started in the 1920s." 

"But while aquaculture has been done for thousands of years, the commercial cultivation of Atlantic salmon has only been going on for 50 to 60 years. Modern large-scale aquaculture production is a fairly recent phenomenon compared to other protein production. You couple that with the inherent difficulties of sensing and perception underwater – it's a very complex challenge." 

From defense electronics to subsea robotics and open-ocean technologies 

However, solving complex challenges is what Kelly does best. Trained as an electrical engineer, on graduation he joined Texas Instruments to focus on electronics for defense technologies. "I worked on advanced technical capabilities related to the defense world for the first chunk of my career, and during that time I also picked up a masters in computer science," he says. 

Around the turn of the millennium, he moved into web and internet-related innovations, joining the prestigious non-profit technology organization Batelle as VP for Information Technology Solutions in 2002. When Battelle acquired Bluefin Robotics in 2008, Kelly became President and CEO of one of the world's most innovative technology companies, working on autonomous underwater vehicles. "That got me into the undersea technology space, which later led to offshore," he says. 

Kelly was at the Bluefin helm when the company came to international public attention during the search for the wreckage of missing Malaysia Airlines flight 370 in 2014. The Bluefin-21 submarine was used to survey the seabed for the remains of the missing plane. "The vehicle did thirty dives in thirty days to a depth of 4,500 meters, which is pretty impressive from a reliability and consistency of operations perspective," Kelly notes.  

David Kelly is both CEO and CTO of Innovasea. Photo: Innovasea.

"Post Bluefin, I was looking for the next thing to do. Talking to my network, somebody said, well, there's a guy in Maine trying to make submersible pens. That led me into talking to Cuna del Mar, and then joining the Innovasea team to build up R&D capability to develop an offshore farm system – not only submersible pens but also support for the four functions of animal husbandry of feeding, harvesting, mortality, management and treatment. That led us into building up the capability that is Innovasea today." 

Advances in technology mean a "golden age" of sustainable aquaculture 

Since Kelly joined the company in 2016, Innovasea has grown to a global presence, employing over 275 specialists worldwide and providing end-to-end solutions for fish farming and aquatic species research to a wide variety of aquaculture businesses, both large and small.

Kelly says it's an inspiring time to be working in the industry. 

"I think it's a golden age for aquaculture, when you've got advances in electronics software, machine vision, AI, and the ability to bring all of that together on the physical technology side. But then you also have the biology, genetics work, the DNA and advanced selective breeding that can be done to accelerate the evolution of the genetic lines to optimize production."  

Another very important factor is aquaculture's ability to meet global protein demand in an environmentally sustainable and scalable way, Kelly explains. 

"I think it's a golden age for aquaculture, when you've got advances in electronics software, machine vision, AI, and the ability to bring all of that together"

– David Kelly

"The core cost drivers, the economic drivers in aquaculture are aligned with a reduction in environmental footprint, reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, reduction in energy usage, because it's in the farmer's best interest. And so, unlike some other industries, in the case of aquaculture, the economic drivers and the ecological stewardship drivers are both aligned." 

"If you look at it from a greenhouse gas, from a feed conversion ratio, and from a variety of other measures, it's one of the more efficient types of protein," he says. 

"And for Cuna del Mar, the impact investment fund which owns us, their core thesis is to demonstrate and promote environmentally sustainable, scalable solutions to grow the protein needed for a growing population, and really a growing middle class, where protein consumption goes up. That's been our premise and our focus." 

Offshore aquaculture: the farmer's needs must come first, says Kelly 

Kelly says his experience in subsea technology helped him in looking at what technology could be applied "most effectively and robustly" for open ocean aquaculture operations. 

"Any of the tech that's applied to these farms really needs to be in support of the farmers. It needs to show a quantitative, economic performance improvement to the farmer. It has to support growing a biological animal and it has to be usable by the farmers and their staff, and the environments where they're doing the work. And so it's not just tech for tech's sake." 

Above all, offshore operations have to be safe and practical, Kelly says. "We have some basic design philosophies in our approach to offshore. Some of the larger scale platforms use different operational models. I think a variety of solutions are needed. If you look at some of the larger structures, then there's a certain scale of production and company size that's required for that system to make sense."  

Innovasea's "SeaStation" offshore aquaculture submersible pens. Photo: Innovasea.

Innovasea's approach: technology in support of fish farmers, no matter the location 

"Our approach is really for newer entrants in new regions, going from zero to 5000 tons of production and being able to scale that out, proof out capabilities, grow up the team and the farm's capabilities to then be economically viable and producing levels that matter. Then you can replicate that to get to greater production levels." 

"We are all-in on aquaculture… That's our long-term focus, to enable efficient, scalable and sustainable aquaculture." 

– David Kelly

"Innovasea is a is a technology company first and foremost. We're looking at how to apply technology to improve the efficiency and efficacy of aquaculture. We believe that if the client can't demonstrate and reap the benefits on their farm, then we haven't been a success," he says. 

"We have built out a go-to-market structure. We've put in regional offices where we have a cluster or critical mass of clients, so we can do the field support and meet their needs."  

"I'd say we are all-in on aquaculture. We're looking to be able to provide complete systems, but then also work with other manufacturers, equipment and other systems to add capabilities to it, to meet the farmer's needs. That's our long-term focus, to enable efficient, scalable and sustainable aquaculture." 

Usable technology for farming in challenging and remote locations 

Kelly notes that a great deal of the engineering and science needed for offshore aquaculture has already been undertaken for ocean engineering for the offshore oil and gas industry. However, such solutions come with a hefty price tag. 

"The challenge is how to take those solutions and take three zeros off the price point, such that you have a solution that's cost effective for aquaculture. A lot of the basic engineering and standards and principles have been worked out, but the question is how to scale, how to change the materials for the relevant forces, to really make a solution that's cost effective and viable for aquaculture." 

"We have to make the technology usable by the workforce. It has to bring benefits, not just add to their burden. So we've done a lot of work on how to enter and collect data, how to minimize the impact on the staff on the farm and then also how to get data to the people that need it when they need it." 

"So it's not data going up to the tower and then dictates coming from on high, but rather, with our approach, the data is available at the farm site to the person working in those environmental conditions. They know what they need to do that same day and as that data is available, whether they're at the farm looking at operations, or in a regional office looking at production and planning, or at a corporate office doing cohort to cohort analysis." 

Supporting aquaculture in remote and developing regions 

Kelly says his approach is to keep in mind the realities of his clients, whose staff are working in areas with little infrastructure or reliable connectivity. 

"Our work has shown that a lot of these farms don't have reliable internet connectivity. So we've designed our systems to be able to have edge computing capacity such that you don't need a reliable internet connection. And when it is available, you can get the data up for sharing, but when it's not, you can still maintain and operate the farms and keep going."  

Innovasea has recently worked with companies developing offshore aquaculture projects in Namibia in southwest Africa, and Aruba in the Caribbean, for instance. 

Innovasea divers inspecting one of the submersible pens. Photo: Innovasea.

"We're willing to work with people wherever they are, and as people have been looking at more exposed sites starting up, we do provide some support for site surveys and conceptual business plans and so on."  

"It's really just trying to bring to those people the capability to operate aquaculture production in an environmentally sustainable way, with approaches that are scalable so they can have impact in the regions where they're operated." 

"A lot of the opportunities have come from rapidly growing regions, whether it's Africa or Oceania or Latin America. We do have opportunities in the more industrialized economies of North America and Europe as well. But the reality is that there isn't a large offshore aquaculture industry in the US today, so a lot of our opportunities are overseas."  

The U.S. needs aquaculture, but the industry should educate politicians and consumers to dispel myths, Kelly says 

How does Kelly see the aquaculture industry developing in North America, given the sometimes fiercely entrenched opposition to finfish farming developments, whether offshore or land-based? 

"I think there's a variety of people trying to change some dated perceptions. There are factions that are very much anti-aquaculture, and there are those that are in support of it. I think if you take a reasoned view, you should be supportive. We are working with multiple parties trying to get systems up in North America. There's been a shift in policy-making perspective over the last several years." 

"I think it's incumbent upon the industry to do some education and to challenge some of these frankly outdated or just flat-out incorrect statements and perceptions about aquaculture. The simple fact of the matter is that wild capture fisheries have been flat to slightly declining for the last 50 years. The entire increase in seafood production has come from aquaculture, and the only way we're going to have a material increase in seafood production going forward is through aquaculture."  

"You can howl at the wind, or we can produce the food that the planet needs. And I think we can do it in an environmentally sustainable and scalable way… creating good local jobs in some of the more rural areas of the country" 

– David Kelly

"So, you can howl at the wind, or we can produce the food that the planet needs. And I think we can do it in an environmentally sustainable and scalable way. I think we'll get there. It's going to be slow and painful, but you know, frankly if we don't, then the production will occur in Latin America and elsewhere, and it'll get shipped in because that's what happens today. I mean, the US loves seafood. It's a major market in the world. The question is whether you want to have employment in coastal communities, creating good, local jobs in some of the more rural areas of the country, or whether you export those jobs to other parts of the world."  

"You know, if you go to Western Norway, there are whole portions of that coastline that are only populated still because of the salmon industry there. I was at a remote feed station on an island a few years ago, and the local people were pretty blunt that if it wasn't for the salmon industry, that island would have been depopulated several decades ago." 

"I think the challenge in North America today is social license and regulation. It's never a good idea to underestimate the ability of a regulator to thwart an industry," Kelly adds. 

Looking ahead for offshore aquaculture: more than just salmon 

"I think there will be increased and broader use of the technology, tuned for various species of fish in various environments," Kelly says.  

"Today the salmon portion of the industry is probably the most sophisticated. It's also the most lucrative, it has some of the best margins. So it's not surprising that they are an early adopter and looking to optimize, but we have already had conversations with other segments of the industry that are adopting, or looking to adopt technology. Part of that is driven by inflation and the escalating cost of feed and other inputs. But I think it's just natural that as these systems get developed and proven, then you can make efficiency enhancements and the cost can come down as things scale." 

"It just takes a little while to get that done and rolled out, but you can see it happening even now in Indonesia with companies like eFishery, who are using smart feeders for shrimp. The question for some of these farmers is how to get the Capex spending to make that initial investment and then reap the savings. So there's some go-to-market work and then support that can help accelerate that." 

"It's really a matter of having robust equipment that works day in and day out and just gets the job done." 

– David Kelly

The right technologies can unlock the data farmers need to take science-based decisions to better manage their aquaculture operations, Kelly says.  

"There's still a fair amount of debate on basic questions in the industry. This will sound like a bad bar joke, but I remember being in the back of a boat in Norway with an Australian, a Norwegian, a Canadian and a Chilean, people from different salmon farming regions of the world, when an argument erupted over the optimal way to feed salmon. Everyone had a different opinion." 

"But with data and experimentation, there can be scientific answers to those questions, and the technology will get rolled out. But again, it's got to be usable at the farm. It's got to work, to be reliable, because a lot of the farms are smaller, and they don't have huge staff available to maintain the equipment and keep complex devices working. It's really a matter of having robust equipment that works day in and day out and just gets the job done." 

An aquaculture operator holding one of Innovasea's biomass cameras. Photo: Innovasea.

Both land-based and ocean-based aquaculture have a role to play 

Kelly notes that Innovasea works on both ocean-based and land-based grow-out systems, including recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS).  

"I think there's going to be a place for all of these grow-out methodologies and approaches as we look at increasing production, and depending on location, species, and so on. RAS is another case where it's a very tech-intensive approach with a limited number of skilled operators. The challenge is how do you minimize the chances for error? How can you make the operation of those systems robust and fairly bulletproof? So we're also working with folks on that."  

Kelly says that data for land-based is just as important as for ocean-based farming. "We're increasing the use of data and sophisticated analysis to support the evolution of the industry and aquaculture operations. I think that will continue, and it will fan out more broadly in the industry writ large over time." 

Aquaculture: "a very complex challenge", and "an enjoyable ride" 

With such a broad vision of the aquaculture world and the technologies needed by the industry now and in the future, what does Kelly find most inspiring about his work? 

"Well, my flippant answer would be, I've gone from being Saint Michael to Saint Peter," he says with a smile. "I started out in the defense world of force projection and now we're on to feeding the world and feeding humanity. " 

But Kelly is still an engineer at heart, and in addition to aquaculture's role in providing a sustainable source of protein for a growing world population, another key motivation in his work at Innovasea is figuring out solutions to complex challenges. 

"What's really interesting is the complexity of building systems to support the natural growth of a biological animal. Mother Nature has been out there for millions of years working on how to throw curveballs at that process," he says. 

"There are many inputs that can influence the outcome: feed, environment, husbandry, weather conditions. You're trying to make something work regardless of whether you're in the tropics getting rained on by the bucket, or you're in an arid, dry environment, or you're inside a facility on land. It's a very complex challenge, because at the end of the day it's also got to work for the farmer."

A fully-stocked SeaStation submersible pen. Photo: Innovasea.

Kelly says the "broad range" of challenges his aquaculture customers face requires an equally broad range of disciplines and skills within his company. 

"We've got ocean engineers that are looking at moorings and ocean structures, and the forces and weights on those. And then we've got electronics people trying to build sensors and cameras and other electronic systems to go in the ocean for long spans of time. Then we have the software folks to work through the processing, control and analysis. Then there's the manufacturing and product engineering teams, where we look at how we can create a cost-effective solution for the farmer. There's a broad range of technology, skills and discipline involved in the process." 

"We're very bullish on aquaculture at Innovasea. We believe it is a key part of a sustainable food system, and we think it is one of the most efficient ways to grow protein. We deal with both cold and warm water species."  

"We're looking at solutions that can go across a broad portion of the planet and support growing populations wherever they are, whether it's Africa, the far east, the industrialized north or other arenas. It's really a global focus, and it's been an enjoyable ride so far." 

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