Innovations that make waves in new waters

Interview with Darren Burrowes – Founder and Chief Technology Officer, BlueZone Group

Darren is a thought leader and champion of innovation. He has conquered difficult markets and proved that smaller companies have a place in the global game. With a background in the Royal Australian Navy, Darren understands the importance of having state of the art equipment whilst at sea. He’s driven by the ocean being so unknown and yet to be explored and as one of the founders of BlueZone Group, he’s been making waves across the industry.

Your innovation

BlueZone applies world-leading technology to enable operation, maintenance and repair in underwater environments. Our company engineers and services subsea equipment including robotics and marine autonomous systems for clients in defence, renewable energy, offshore oil and gas and water utility industries. We’ve also helped develop products such as the revolutionary marine energy turbine, the Sea Urchin, which generates electricity by harnessing ocean tides and flowing rivers.

Your story

I studied Electrical Engineering with honours, then served 11 years in the Royal Australian Navy as a naval weapons electrical engineering officer; managing the technical departments in seagoing ships and working on major shipbuilding projects. During this time I also completed an MBA, to build my business skills.

I met my business partner Neil Hodges on shipbuilding project. Both having a Defence background, we saw a massive opportunity for a smaller, agile company to service the Defence industry. We formed ATSA Defence Services Pty Ltd and won a contract to support SAAB in Australia. We then made the decision to grow our company by a sidestep into new water infrastructure market. After acquiring UVS (an underwater video systems company), BlueZone Group was born.

Your business and team

BlueZone Group is a 100% Australian owned family company, which includes myself and my wife Gunilla, and also Neil and Yvette Hodges. Neil and I are the founders and Executive Officers. Neil focuses on finance and admin, myself on marketing and technology. When we first started our business in 2000 we only had two active staff – myself and Neil. Today, BlueZone Group has 36 staff. We’ve also expanded our business model from service-only to product development. We now have offices in Newcastle, Melbourne and Perth.

Innovation support

We didn’t really have access to innovation support until much later in the game. From the beginning we bootstrapped the company with loans from family and friends. It was a huge risk. We were undertaking complex high-technology service activities for the Navy while also developing our
business process.

In more recent years, we’ve been the recipient of grants such as the Australian Government Priming Grant, which saw us collaborate with the IKT the Institute for Underground Infrastructure of Germany. My wife and I were also early investors in the Slingshot Accelerator program. Independently we are active Angel investors and have invested in several local projects.

Why Newcastle

That is a no brainer – it’s a super lifestyle! Newcastle’s also got a heritage of technology; BHP was once a startup. This has created a long history of families working in technology and manufacturing. I believe the future of Newcastle lies in clean technology, which is very exciting. There is also the benefit of living on the doorstep of a global city like Sydney without the drawbacks of expensive rent or parking. It’s perfect for startups!

Your biggest challenges

Historically the defence market was dominated by large, well-established global contractors, clients didn’t think an SME could comply with the high-quality standards. We really had to persevere and build our reputation while the market caught up to us. As a start up often you have to bite off more
than you can chew and keep chewing. Now the industry has realised the effectiveness of startups who are less risk averse and far more innovative. We also have skin in the game and are always looking to do it better faster and cheaper. We are often closer to the customers so can easily feed input straight back into the business. You have to constantly check what the market needs.

The future

We’ll continue to focus on researching and developing innovative products. New tools give you new
ways to measure, manage, and interact with the world. We’ve been having great success with 3D
printing. It’s an ideal technology for water. One of our other key goals is to support the introduction of
introduce robotics and autonomy to the Royal Australian Navy. It makes a lot of sense in the ocean
where it’s really expensive for ships and people. Our company gets to be part of that. It’s very exciting
time in the industry.

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